Six decades of research have shown that telepsychiatry is an effective alternative when in-person treatment for mental health care is not feasible or unavailable. By exploring the benefits of telepsychiatry, healthcare facilities can make informed decisions about how to best provide quality mental healthcare based on their specific needs and the needs of the patient populations they serve.
When looking at telepsychiatry as an option of behavioral health treatment, there are five key areas for healthcare institutions to consider.
For people living in rural America, access to quality healthcare, particularly mental healthcare, is an ongoing challenge. According to the Health Resources & Services Administration, nearly 90 million Americans are living in mental health professional shortage areas, the majority of whom live in rural and remote areas. Telepsychiatry allows mental health professionals to reach America’s underserved populations with ease and efficacy. With minimal technological requirements, telepsychiatrists can serve patients from anywhere, helping to alleviate ongoing mental healthcare shortages.
Studies have shown that implementing telepsychiatry services can significantly reduce costs for healthcare systems. One study shows a cost reduction of more than 70 percent for facilities in rural areas, while another reveals that using telepsychiatry versus in-person psychiatric care reduced costs by 40 percent. For healthcare organizations that don’t have the resources or patient volume to hire a psychiatrist for a full time position, bringing on a telepsychiatrist for a few hours a week can provide the services needed in a more cost-efficient manner.
Telepsychiatry not only allows mental health professionals to reach the underserved, it also empowers those who need behavioral health treatment to seek and receive it more easily. A short commute to the local healthcare center can put the patient in contact with their telepsychiatrist, avoiding the need for those in remote or rural areas to travel long distances to find care. This is a great benefit for low-income patients, as well as those facing mobility issues. Furthermore, telepsychiatry can help alleviate the stigma of mental illness in some communities, by allowing patients to receive care from a telepsychiatrist through their primary care provider’s office or community health center. By presenting mental health as part of a patient’s overall health, healthcare organizations can often encourage more people to seek the treatment they need.
For some people, such as patients in prisons or those with autism spectrum disorder, it can be easier to open up to someone over a screen than in person. Dr. Omar Elhaj, a senior consulting psychiatrist with Regroup who provides telepsychiatry services for correctional facilities, recounts several instances where videoconferencing offered advantages that in-person treatment could not. “[A patient of mine] was experiencing anxiety and did not want anyone else to know the reason of his anxiety,” Elhaj says. “[He] wrote a message on his hand and held it up to the camera. He knew that I would not be standing next to the water cooler talking about it with colleagues.” For these patients, working with a clinician who appears to be outside the system can improve patient comfort and treatment effectiveness.
A variety of studies reveal the positive outcomes of telepsychiatry, including its value across different populations and age groups. One study, which looked at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs patients, found that the number of psychiatric admissions and days of hospitalization decreased an average of 25 percent for men and women following the initiation of telepsychiatry.
Telepsychiatry holds tremendous promise for healthcare organizations and patients. By implementing telepsychiatry services, healthcare facilities have an opportunity to improve operational efficiency and care access while delivering good quality care and positive clinical outcomes.