May 24, 2016
Telemedicine and Psychiatry, Part 3
BY Mary Mahoney
This is the third in a three-part series looking the past, present and future of “telemedicine.” First, we looked at the early roots of telemedicine. In the second installment, we explored the exciting prospects for its future. In this, the final blog, we talk about one of the most popular forms of telemedicine, “telepsychiatry.”
After the brother of Navajo Nation member Haley Laughter died from substance abuse, she wanted to do something to improve the availability of mental-health services to the nation’s remote and often impoverished Indians.
Suicide, sexual assaults and domestic violence are well-documented on the nation’s Indian reservations. But health-care services lag demand because the Indian Health Services has a hard time keeping and attracting professionals. The Gallup Indian Medical Center in New Mexico, for instance, serves the area’s approximately 173,000 Navajos with just one psychiatrist.
So Laughter turned to telemedicine, which has some of its earliest roots in serving remote native populations, and opened a company that works with Indian Health Services to provide so-called “telepsychiatry” services across its behavioral health system network.
Formed just this year, the goal of her company, MorningStar Behavioral Health Services, is to bridge the gap in services with counselors who are sensitive to the needs of native cultures. She currently works with two New Mexico-based counselors and a psychiatric nurse practitioner in Oregon, each of whom consult with patients through a secure video link.
In addition to opening access to health care from remote locations, some say telepsychiatry breaks down the stigma and embarrassment that prevent many from seeking treatment.
According to a report by the American Psychological Association, a 2009 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey found that less than one-quarter of the estimated 45 million American adults who have a mental illness receive treatment.
Eve-Lynn Nelson, assistant director of research at the University of Kansas Center for Telemedicine and Telehealth,, says one major reason for the low number is that these patients are avoiding the stigma and embarrassment associated with contacting a therapist. Telehealth, whether by phone, email or video conferencing, can help break down those barriers.
Laughter says patients often are less inhibited and more likely to open up because they are not face-to-face with a caregiver but “protected” by a screen.
Like any area of medicine, telepsychiatry requires special training and guidelines. But when done right, experts agree that it holds huge potential.
The Arizona Telemedicine Program at the University of Arizona, which provides telemedicine services in more than two dozen states, says its “e-Psychiatry’s Telepsychiatry” program for health-care facilities is its most popular service.
“The shortage of psychiatrists makes it difficult for mental health clinics and other behavioral health facilities to recruit, staff and retain a psychiatrist,” the university says. “Most of the time, behavioral health organizations turn to recruiters to staff a psychiatrist. This can be very time-consuming and expensive. We provide facilities a way to avoid all of the overhead costs associated with recruiting and hiring a full-time or part-time psychiatrist.”
The university also reports that 95 percent of those who try telepsychiatry like it.