Telepsychiatry Can Help Increase Access to Psychiatric Care in Rural Illinois

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February 11, 2015 | Jim Varrell, MD 

See this article on The InSight Bulletin.

Illinois, like many other states across the country, struggles to serve the psychiatric needs of its citizens because of a huge shortage of psychiatric prescribers, particularly in rural and underserved areas.

In addressing this issue, I challenge Illinois to consider innovative solutions like telemedicine to alleviate some of the problems associated low psychiatric capacity in rural area.

Telepsychiatry, or psychiatric care provided through real-time videoconferencing, is a widely used medium for bringing psychiatric care into locations with limited access to mental health professionals. It allows for a psychiatrist or other mental health professional to see, evaluate, diagnose and treat patients without having to be in the same physical space.

Telepsychiatry is an application of telemedicine, a rapidly growing industry that incorporates technology into healthcare delivery to enable remote assessment and treatment. Scores of clinical research have shown the effectiveness of telepsychiatry in nearly all settings and populations.

Telepsychiatry is a way to increase access to Illinois-licensed providers who may live across the country. It is also a way to better leverage the time of existing Illinois-based psychiatric prescribers who could seamlessly transition between appointments at different facilities without having to physically travel, as many of them now do.

Telepsychiatry providers could be used in several ways in Illinois:

  • In hospital emergency departments: By incorporating 24-hour on-demand telepsychiatry programs, hospitals could have timely access to psychiatric providers for commitment and treatment decisions. Experienced psychiatric nurse practitioners and psychiatrists consistently assess risk with a high degree of certainty and therefore can significantly reduce unnecessary admissions, which frees up beds for those who need them and sends home those who don’t. While telepsychiatry is not able to create hospital beds, it is an advantageous way to bring psychiatric care where it is not readily available.
  • In inpatient units or psychiatric hospitals: Illinois could use telepsychiatry within inpatient units or the two state psychiatric hospitals to increase their psychiatric capacity and more quickly and appropriately treat mentally ill patients.
  • In community-based facilities: Other settings can benefit from improved access to psychiatric providers including correctional facilities, outpatient facilities, schools, primary care offices, urgent care centers and FQHCs. By increasing the psychiatric capacity of community-based programs it is less likely for a person to reach psychiatric crisis that requires hospitalization.

I urge Illinois to consider this medium of care as they work to improve their psychiatric services in rural areas.

See this article on The InSight Bulletin.