Telepsychiatry programs taking on a bigger role in mental health


Trained psychiatrists are increasingly turning to telemedicine in an effort to reach patients, particularly those who live in rural areas.

Saint Alphonsus in Boise, Idaho, is an example of a health system that is leveraging telehealth services to better reach patients. Local behavioral units, including one managed by Saint Alphonsus, are often overrun due to mental and behavioral health issues that require inpatient admission.

The health system decided it needed to better address these issues to alleviate stress on the hospital’s other services. As a result, a partnership was formed with the University of Washington, which has a psychiatry residency program and a designated telepsychiatry supervisor.

The program is specifically called the Idaho Advanced Clinician Track, and consultations are provided by a rotation of residents. Patients use the service once a week in a supervised telemedicine studio on Saint Alphonsus’ campus.

Officials with the health system cite research that has indicated 30 percent of patients suffering from chronic ailments are also afflicted by a behavioral disorder. Getting in front of it is paramount, and reaching patients in rural areas who need psychiatric treatment via telemedicine could greatly reduce the chances of hospitalization, whether it’s in pockets of rustic Idaho, Oregon or anywhere in the U.S., for that matter.

Research shows the use of telehealth to heighten psychiatry services is growing nationwide. Spartanburg Regional Healthcare in South Carolina utilizes a “Skype-like camera” to get a patient instant access. Spartanburg Regional is one of 25 hospitals statewide that uses telepsychiatry through the state Department of Mental Health. An added benefit, hospital officials note, is that they can get ahead of any percolating issues and take away some of the burden from emergency rooms.

A mid-2016 report from the American Telemedicine Association showed that Medicaid programs in 49 states cover telepsychiatry healthcare services, and 30 states and the District of Columbia require insurers to cover the services.

This growing sub-sector of the telehealth industry has to be received as welcome news by the healthcare community. As providers and payers continually move towards increased quality care and away from fee-for-service, addressing mental health concerns ahead of the curve is vital to improving reform programs.

Chris Silva is an analyst at DRG and specializes in information technology, telehealth and big data, among other topics. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisSilvaDRG