Editorial: Telepsychiatry is needed alternative in crisis situations

Winston-Salem, N.C.

Editorial: Telepsychiatry is needed alternative in crisis situations

Winston-Salem Journal
April 10, 2014

For mental health patients and their families, the frequently long wait for help can be unbearable.

There is now hope that a joint state and Duke Endowment initiative will radically reduce waiting times and the suffering that thousands endure.

The N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, a nonpartisan think-tank, says wait times at rural hospitals have been greatly reduced by telepsychiatry. Patients who were, on average, waiting 48 to 72 hours to get medical help in 2010 are now waiting less than six.

North Carolina has a severe shortage of psychiatrists in rural counties. But, by partnering with psychiatrists who live in urban areas, rural hospitals using telepsychiatry can now help patients much more quickly, the Journal's Richard Craver reported. Telepsychiatry uses two-way audio and/or video as a rapid-response assessment option for people during a mental health or substance abuse episode.

The study also found that hospitals are releasing patients to inpatient care much more quickly and that the number of involuntary commitments is way down.

The legislature appropriated $4 million over two years for the program, the Duke endowment is contributing $600,000 and hospital subscription fees and claim reimbursements will pay the rest of the $4.63 million cost.

That cost might turn out to be a bargain for taxpayers, because law enforcement officers often must stay in emergency rooms with mental health patients until their crisis is resolved, and that can add up to dozens of officer hours for each situation.

The program is projected to serve 4,350 patients in this, the first year of legislative funding. Next fiscal year, that number should jump to 13,200 as more of the 58 counties with psychiatrist shortages are brought on board.

To her credit, state health Secretary Aldona Wos supports this effort.

North Carolina's mental health program has had one disappointment after another over the past decade or more. So this is extremely welcome good news for a change.

We all hope the day comes when there are enough medical providers in every county to meet all needs. Until that day arrives, telepsychiatry will be a very workable alternative in crisis situations.



Contact: news@dhhs.nc.gov