Telepsych services are transforming access to care for the nearly 90 million Americans living in mental health care professional shortage areas, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration. Many of these underserved Americans are in rural areas, where poverty, unemployment, and accidents and natural disasters are more prevalent.
These hardships can compound stress, making behavioral health care even more essential for these communities. A lack of clinicians can force patients to wait months for treatment, however, and the stigma of receiving psychiatric care also leads many in need to avoid seeking help.
While many think of telepsychiatry services as a patient talking to a doctor through a video screen, forward-thinking healthcare systems are using telepsychiatry in new ways. By also connecting primary care physicians (PCPs) with teleclinicians behind the scenes, telepsychiatry services can help health systems improve care access and clinical efficiency.
For example, OSF HealthCare, a health care system serving Illinois and Michigan, is using these emerging forms of telepsychiatry to expand access to care for its own rural patients. With Illinois only meeting 28 percent of its need for mental health professionals, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, OSF is going beyond the screen to reduce patient wait times and empower PCPs to treat some mental health issues themselves.
Based on OSF’s approach, here are several applications for telepsychiatry that can help health care systems drive the greatest impact.
- Direct patient care. As the most-used form of telepsychiatry, providers interact directly with patients by live video during their sessions. By sourcing clinicians from anywhere, telepsychiatry allows health care systems to get patients the mental health treatment they need more quickly. In OSF’s case, adding 24 hours of weekly telepsychiatry helped to reduce wait times dramatically at its Ottawa, Illinois, facility.
- Patient consultations. For some patients, the idea of talking to a psychiatrist about their health issues is a non-starter. By using telepsychiatry for patient e-consultations, PCPs can better assess mental health needs and treat some issues on their own, sidestepping these stigmas and freeing up psychiatrists for more severe cases. At OSF, the eConsult program gives PCPs the ability to send questions about specific patients directly to a trained psychiatrist, who can provide insights on diagnostic criteria, psychopharmacology and any potential side effects. By having access to the patient’s electronic medical records, the psychiatrist can also track progress and make treatment plans alongside the PCP.
- Medical education. As PCPs share more of the responsibility for behavioral health care, ongoing education is critical to help them provide the best possible care. Having virtual access to trained psychiatrists can help these providers answer questions as they arise and stay up to date on current best practices.
By using telepsychiatry services for more than just video chats, health care systems like OSF are improving access and quality of patient care in rural America. Involving PCPs in mental health care also helps patients to see mental health treatment not as something to be ashamed of, but as a key part of overall health and wellbeing.
Want to learn more about OSF’s innovative approach to telepsych services? See how the system has reduced patient wait times and improved satisfaction in our case study.