Increasing Access to Mental Health Care with Telepsychiatry

By James Varrell, MD

The United States is facing a severe shortage of psychiatrists, in which 55 percent of counties nationwide currently have no psychiatrists available, according to a new report. This shortage is impacting the country’s health care system, particularly for primary-care doctors, who increasingly have to assume these roles to treat mental or behavioral health conditions.

Taking on mental health care often requires more time and resources to adequately assess and treat such conditions, which can further limit the valuable time doctors have with other patients at the point of care.

Moreover, the delivery of specialized mental healthcare can be out of the realm of expertise or comfort for many primary-care doctors. When it is, it makes sense to refer care to psychiatry providers. Yet, due to the current shortage of psychiatrists, patients may need to wait weeks—sometimes even months—to be seen by a local psychiatry provider in their community.

This is where direct-to-consumer telepsychiatry, also known as in-home telepsychiatry, can help fill the gap for primary-care doctors. Telepsychiatry is a type of telemedicine that uses videoconferencing to provide psychiatric evaluation, consultation and treatment.

Why direct-to-consumer telepsychiatry?

Telepsychiatry offers several benefits, and meets the standard of traditional in-person care. Telepsychiatry can meet patients where they are, whether at home or in a private office, eliminating time spent traveling to appointments or in waiting rooms. It also allows more flexibility with scheduling, as direct-to-consumer telepsychiatry providers usually work from home themselves and can offer appointments during non-traditional hours, including evenings and weekends.

By eliminating long wait times associated with community-based psychiatry options, direct-to-consumer telepsychiatry enables greater accessibility to psychiatry providers and supports continuity of care. It expands the reach outside the local community, so patients have access to high quality care and a variety of specialized providers. As long as a telepsychiatry provider is licensed in the state where a patient is physically located, they can deliver care. This also opens the door for patients to continue seeing their same psychiatry provider throughout many life transitions; including job changes, college, and vacations.

Just like with in-person treatment, patients meet with the same telepsychiatry provider over time, allowing the patient and his or her consented primary-care doctor to develop a rapport with the remote psychiatrist. By ensuring the mental health of a patient is appropriately addressed, primary-care doctors can better attend to the patient’s physical health.

Key considerations when referring patients

Referring patients to direct-to-consumer telepsychiatry is similar to referring to any outpatient setting. Like other referrals, the process begins with an intake of patient’s medical history and applicable screenings to determine if the patient requires specialty care.

Telepsychiatry is versatile and has been proven effective with all age groups. For patients who worry about mental or behavioral health stigmas, telepsychiatry may help them follow-up with referrals to psychiatry providers who they can see through telehealth as opposed to those they would have to see in-person.

Referral coordinators can help determine if a patient is appropriate for in-home, direct-to-consumer treatment by asking a few simple questions and considering the following:

  1. Can this condition be treated through direct-to-consumer telepsychiatry?
    Anxiety, depression, stress, life transitions, childhood mood disorders, and ADHD are all conditions that can be successfully treated using telepsychiatry. Much like outpatient care, direct-to-consumer telepsychiatry is not appropriate for patients who currently may be suicidal, homicidal, delusional or paranoid.
  2. Does the patient have the technology needed to access telepsychiatry?
    When considering patients for telepsychiatry, referral coordinators should make sure the patient has access to a computer, tablet or smartphone with video calling abilities. Most people already have one or more of these devices and can access telepsychiatry sessions from home. As long as the patient has an email address and is moderately comfortable using technology—telepsychiatry can be an option.
  3. Does the patient have a safe space for accessing direct-to-consumer appointments?
    The patient should have consistent access to a safe and private space in their home, office or another location, such as a community center to have their telehealth sessions.

For many remote referral groups, patients have the option to choose from a list of applicable psychiatry providers based on specialty and area of expertise, and schedule an online appointment at their convenience.

Expanding your referral community

Because telepsychiatry is a newer type of referral option, a practice may want to test direct-to-consumer care on a small group of early adopters to create an easy system for referring before offering this option practice-wide. When evaluating remote referral group options, primary-care doctors should consider:

  • Whether the group is a technology company or if real people are behind the service and involved in supporting the process.
  • If there are opportunities to meet the potential providers referred beforehand, either in person or via video.
  • Whether the group accepts only certain insurance or if all patients are eligible.
  • If the telepsychiatry provider will share information periodically with the primary-care doctor, so all parts of the care team can stay involved and informed (with the patient’s consent).

After a few early adopters, a practice can gauge their comfort level with this type of referral option, generate buy-in from staff and patients and roll out the direct-to-consumer referral option practice-wide.

The impact of telepsychiatry

With direct-to-consumer telepsychiatry as a referral option, primary-care doctors don’t have to settle for the limited choices within their community or provide mental or behavioral health services themselves. Using telepsychiatry, doctors can ensure the mental health of their patients is addressed in an effective and timely fashion, which can ultimately have a direct impact on their health, wellbeing and overall quality of life.

James R. Varrell, M.D. is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who has been practicing telepsychiatry for 18 years and is the Medical Director of InSight Telepsychiatry. InSight’s direct-to-consumer division that currently accepts patient referrals for psychiatry and therapy is called Inpathy.

Read the full article on Physician’s Practice here.