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Telepsychiatry gains momentum at academic medical centers

June 3, 2014
by David Raths
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From the American Telemedicine Association's ATA 2014

Psychiatry continues to experience a provider shortage, particularly in child and adolescent psychiatry. There are 8,300 child and adolescent psychiatrists practicing in the United States, and 400 residents graduate each year.

“There is no way we can meet the societal need with the present care model,” said David Pruitt, MD, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Maryland.

Specifically, telepsychiatry can extend the reach of providers to help them serve clients in rural areas, in schools that do not have staff on site or in areas where integrated care is being used. Pruitt spoke about the potential of telepsychiatry at the recent American Telemedicine Association meeting in Baltimore.

Delivery of remote behavioral health services using technology is a key component in the University of Maryland’s approach to community engagement. “We teach residents how we in psychiatry can be relevant in the new medical/behavioral care environment,” said Pruitt.

Proof of concept

Michele Fallon Travers, MD, chief of telepsychiatry at University of Florida (UF) Health in Gainesville, launched a telepsychiatry program last year. “As of a year ago, I was surprised to learn that no one was doing telepsychiatry at UF. In fact, no one was doing telemedicine at all, so I volunteered to do it.”

She worked with UF information technology teams on the first proof of concept for telemedicine, and it served as a model for the entire university. The project focused on student mental health in the Counseling and Wellness Center.

The team chose to start there because the billing would be easier and because students were likely to embrace the technology, Travers said. “College students pay health fees as part of their tuition, so collecting revenue was not an issue.” Also, college students are comfortable using Skype, Facetime and mobile devices regularly. They are more comfortable using technology than the doctors are, she said. HIPAA-compliant videoconferencing was offered free for college students, initially on campus, then anywhere in Gainesville, and later anywhere in the state of Florida.

The new setup has other benefits. For example, the infirmary, where students receive primary care, is quite a distance from the counseling center. Previously, in an emergency situation, UF would have to activate the campus police department to transport a student to the psychiatry department for consultations, Travers said. Now the primary care doctor can hold an emergency consultation through the use of telemedicine, rather than moving the patient.

UF has begun several research projects to gauge its program, including studying student perceptions. “In our first study, the students rated the acceptability of telepsychiatry high compared to group therapy,” Travers said. “In fact, many preferred it to face-to-face meetings.”

As providers increasingly seek reimbursement for the virtual services, the Florida Legislature is examining the issues with a state telepsychiatry task force, which Travers has been asked to chair. “At UF, our focus has been on improving convenience factors. But now that we have our sea legs, we are starting to pursue fee-for- service and contract work,” she said. “We are in negotiation with several clinics and hospitals that have asked us to provide emergency and forensic services via contract.”

Collaborative care model

Patrick O’Neill, MD, director of telepsychiatry at Tulane University in New Orleans, said his institution has been working on telepsychiatry for several years. Six years ago, Tulane was approached by a region of the state that was underserved. “We developed a system that piggybacks on the state intranet,” O’Neill explained. “We have Polycom desktop sets and sell our faculty time in four-hour blocks.” Tulane has gradually built up to clinical services. “We average 180 hours a week, not including the VA and forensic work we do,” he said.

Among other programs, Tulane provides telepsychiatry services to the grant-funded Integrated Behavioral Health Program (IBHP) for federally qualified health centers in Louisiana. The program employs a collaborative care model, in which the primary care provider, behavioral health specialist, patient navigator and consulting psychiatrist work together to address a patient’s mental health issues within the primary care setting.

Robert Caudill, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville, directs its telepsychiatry program. It has grown to offer 64 hours per week of clinical services to several rural community health agencies in underserved areas of the commonwealth.

“Kentucky has 120 counties with 14 community mental health centers. Each has its own internal politics and governance structures,” Caudill said. “We have active programs in two [centers], and will have a third up and running soon.”

Rather than seeking grant funding, the program has worked to develop institutional contracts to be self-supporting. “We can offer two hours a week to an isolated rural clinic,” he said. “We offer a fixed hourly rate with agreed-upon clinical parameters, such as how many patients per hour.”

Still under investigation for future offerings, he added, are emergency department coverage, medical-surgical hospital consultations, asynchronous services, home-based patients, nursing homes and day treatment programs.

Foster participation

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