RALEIGH, NC | August 21, 2013 | Eric Wicklund – Editor, mHealthNews

North Carolina is investing $4 million in a telepsychiatry initiative aimed at improving access to mental health professionals.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos, MD, unveiled the plan earlier this month at East Carolina University in Greenville.

“No matter where you live in North Carolina, you will soon have better access to mental health providers with the expansion of telepsychiatry across our state,” McCrory said in a press release. “Technology will help us connect people with appropriate treatment programs so patients can avoid long waits in the emergency room. North Carolina can be a national leader with this program.”

The program begins in January 2014. It will link emergency departments to mental health professionals who can initiate treatment for ED patients suffering from a mental health or substance abuse crisis. They’ll use secure, real-time interactive audio and video technology to diagnose and treat individuals needing care at any remote referring site.

The state will invest $4 million over two years in the program, which will be overseen by the DHHS Office of Rural Health and Community Care.

The Statewide Telepsychiatry Program builds on the success of East Carolina University’s Center for Telepsychiatry and e-Behavioral Health and the Albemarle Hospital Foundation Telepsychiatry Project. The General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services recommended the project.

According to federal guidelines, 58 counties in North Carolina now qualify as “Health Professional Shortage Areas” due to a lack of mental health providers. The majority of the state’s emergency departments don’t have access to a full-time psychiatrist, forcing  patients to either wait for help or receive less-than-optimum care.

“During my travels to hospitals around North Carolina, it is apparent that improving quality and access to mental health services must be a priority for our state,” Wos said in a press release. “By investing in a statewide telepsychiatry program, we are confronting one of North Carolina’s biggest and most important healthcare challenges. Through this program, we will be able to help hospitals struggling to meet mental health and substance abuse treatment needs in their communities and connect people in underserved areas of our state to qualified behavioral health providers.”

The ECU Center for Telepsychiatry will develop a provider network and establish the technology infrastructure and guidelines for administering the program. An advisory group will work with the Statewide Telepsychiatry Program to promote collaboration among partners.

“Mission Health is looking forward to joining the Telepsychiatry Network,” said Ronald A. Paulus, MD, the Asheville-based organization’s president and CEO, in a news release. “We know from direct experience that telehealth in general, and telepsychiatry specifically, expedites access for some of our most vulnerable patients and significantly improves the way we can diagnose, treat and support them.

“The state’s commitment to this program is an important sign of good faith that allows us to continue to bring timely, expert care to the people in rural communities throughout western North Carolina,” he added.

“Telepsychiatry is a valuable tool that EDs in North Carolina use to get psychiatric services to patients in a cost-effective and timely manner,” said Bill Pully, president of the North Carolina Hospital Association, in a statement. “It can reduce lengths of stay and free up emergency resources for medical emergencies. Increasing access to telepsychiatry is good for behavioral health patients, medical patients and the entire healthcare delivery system.”

The East Carolina University Telemedicine Program has been in operation since 1992, making it one of the longest running clinical telemedicine operations in the world, according to officials

“This project is about providing evidence-based mental health care to our patients regardless of where they may be located in North Carolina,” said Sy Saeed, MD, chairman of the Department of Psychiatric Medicine at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine. “As we do that, we are beginning to bridge the gap between science and practice that exists today in all areas of medicine.”

Since the Albemarle Hospital Foundation telepsychiatry initiative’s implementation in May 2011, more than 4,000 psychiatric assessments have been provided to patients in emergency departments. Initial project outcomes include reductions in patients’ lengths of stay, 30-day recidivism rates and involuntary commitments to inpatient psychiatric facilities.

Specifically, lengths of stay for patients discharged to inpatient treatment have dropped from an average of 48 hours to 22.5 hours since the program began.

Here’s a video of a typical Psychitric Teleconsult


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