Recent high-profile events have elevated the national discussion about mental illness and how best to circumvent potentially disastrous outcomes.
Supply and demand of mental and behavioral health care services sit at the heart of the problem, and while various schools of thought exist as to the solution, most in the industry agree on one point: the behavioral health access crisis has reached a tipping point. From extreme shortages in psychiatric beds—numbering roughly 14 per every 100,000 people in the U.S.—to nearly 10 times as many people with serious mental illness residing in jails and prisons as those in psychiatric hospitals, the current state of affairs is unacceptable.
As access challenges continue to grow, those suffering from mental illness are increasingly caught up in the consequences of a vicious cycle: a lack of proactive care options; inconsistent treatment, if any; and in turn, conditions that continue to escalate—sometimes to a crisis level that can result in severe and even dangerous situations.
The good news is that innovative, advanced and more proactive options exist that have the potential to improve the outlook significantly. Telepsychiatry plays an important role in this equation as a solution that opens new access to care, closes gaps across the care continuum, and empowers timely and more effective crisis response within communities.
Proactive Intervention to Minimize Escalation
While the emergency department (ED) is a common entry point for mental and behavioral health concerns, the truth is that crisis care in the ED creates inefficiencies and bottlenecks, impacting throughout and overall quality. Addressing the larger issue of proactive care that circumvents the potential for crisis and keeps people out of the ED—or worse, the correctional system—is paramount.
Telepsychiatry delivered via videoconferencing technology is fast becoming an effective option for providing preventative care and helping individuals receive more consistent treatment for sustainable management of conditions.
For instance, direct-to-consumer (D2C) telepsychiatry allows individuals to engage with providers remotely from the comfort of their home or another private location of their choosing. While it’s not uncommon to wait upwards of 60 days for an in-person appointment with a specialty psychiatrist, individuals can meet with providers within days of booking an appointment using telepsychiatry.
With the “anytime, anywhere framework,” this approach supports both greater access to qualified behavioral health professionals as well as added convenience and flexibility for individuals, including the ability to meet with providers outside of traditional office hours. Combined, these factors help address the need for more accessible, proactive care options that encourage consistency over time.
Taking a Community-Based Approach
While the use of telepsychiatry holds great promise in advancing more proactive and consistent care for mental and behavioral health, it also plays an integral role in closing gaps across the continuum and promoting more connected communities. This forward-thinking care model can be deployed in a variety of health care settings and other sites throughout communities—from hospitals and health systems to primary care settings to even mental health centers—creating efficiencies within organizations’ walls and a more holistic continuum of care.
When it comes to creating safer and healthier communities outside of the health care setting, first responders and police officers are the first line of defense in addressing crisis care in the field. These teams are responsible for assessing situations and determining the best course of action for individuals in need, which can be a daunting challenge without specialized training and resources to support such decisions while out in the community.
To address this issue, innovative crisis response teams are turning to telepsychiatry and emerging with crisis responders and even police officers that are equipped with tools to better address situations as they occur. Leveraging iPads to connect with telepsychiatry providers while in the field, these teams have real-time access to qualified professionals who can assess situations and help first responders make the best choices. When this kind of collaboration exists, the potential for eliminating unnecessary hospitalization and helping people access the proper care they need improves significantly.
Telepsychiatry is changing the way communities and the industry as a whole approach mental and behavioral healthcare. By increasing access to care and supporting more timely, a proactive intervention that minimizes the potential for escalation, telepsychiatry is an important strategy for getting ahead of the growing mental health crisis.
James R. Varrell, M.D. is a child and adolescent psychiatrist with more than 18 years’ experience practicing telepsychiatry. He is the founder and Medical Director of the CFG Health Network and InSight Telepsychiatry, a partner organization to the CFG Health Network. InSight’s direct-to-consumer division that currently accepts patient referrals for psychiatry and therapy is called Inpathy.