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Safe Harbor leverages telepsychiatry

October 12, 2016
by Jonathan Evans
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For 23 years, Safe Harbor Behavioral Health, just blocks from Lake Erie, has provided intensive outpatient services to patients with serious mental illness. Formed as a not-for-profit, it also delivers 24/7 crisis intervention services to anyone in need in Erie County, Pa. While our not-for-profit thrived, we recognized the critical shortage of psychiatrists in community mental health settings, particularly in rural areas that experience difficulty recruiting and retaining qualified psychiatrists.

We were well aware of a burgeoning trend: Telepsychiatry was changing the way psychiatrists “see” patients and exhibited tremendous promise for providing care in underserved areas. This new and highly efficient modality delivers an experience almost identical to the one a patient has in-person at a clinic. As its popularity increases, it’s garnering a “thumbs up” from patients, clinicians and partners alike.

With a well-established knowledge base gleaned from operating high-demand not-for-profit community mental health centers, Safe Harbor recognized that in 2014, we were well positioned to provide telepsychiatry services and formed InnovaTel Telepsychiatry, as a for-profit business.

Our experience as a not-for-profit launching a successful for-profit provides us a unique opportunity to speak directly to other not-for-profit that may be considering a similar venture.

As you consider expanding your list of behavioral health services, you’ve undoubtedly contemplated what additions might work for your organization and your patient population. You recognize barriers that consumers face to obtaining quality healthcare. You analyze your financials repeatedly to determine if you can offer another solution that aligns with the current healthcare landscape as new policies are enacted.

Meeting a need

One of the first things to consider when starting any business is establishing whether a need exists. In our case, we recognized that demand for community psychiatric services is very real, especially in rural areas and certain urban areas with a high percentage of residents from a lower socioeconomic demographic. That need is accelerated because of greater access to mental healthcare through the Affordable Care Act and the Mental Health Parity Act and Addiction Equity Act.

As more primary care physicians, especially those in a clinic environment, face high patient loads along with short appointment times, many prefer that their patients with more complex mental health concerns see psychiatrists. Telepsychiatry can easily accommodate this need.

Methodical start

Whether operating a not-for-profit or a for-profit, a measured start that allows you to test the waters is ideal. Safe Harbor initially introduced telepsychiatry in 2009 through a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant award. In 2011, Liberty Eberly, DO, founding partner and director of physician engagement, began to test the efficacy of this new concept by managing her 600-patient caseload with telepsychiatry.

That trial was so successful that a small group of us from Safe Harbor pooled resources and established the private corporation, InnovaTel. A distinct advantage is that operating in the private sector allows for more agility when obtaining financing in that category versus public sector funding.

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