Mental health services are hard to access in rural America: Telemedicine can help

To say those who live in rural America can have difficulty accessing mental health care, is an understatement. Two such barriers they face are transportation and the scarcity of providers in country settings. These combined issues place burdens on family physicians to provide mental health care when many patients truly need to see a psychiatrist.

Appalachia is a region of the country that has been hard hit in recent years. An article published by Medscape tells the story of Tanya Nelson, 29, who spends a full day getting to and from her psychiatrist for the treatment of multiple diagnoses: bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety. She doesn’t drive, so she depends on a transportation service, which makes numerous stops picking-up other travelers, before getting Nelson to her doctor’s office which is 32 miles from her home.

Transportation isn’t the only issue for people who live in remote areas. Many psychiatrists do not take insurance and those that do often book up months in advance.   For the residents of Wyoming County, West Virginia, there are only a few general practitioners and even fewer behavioral health specialists. Dr. Joanna Bailey, who practices family medicine, says that roughly 30 percent of her caseload is for mental health issues. Dr. Bailey says her patients are at a disadvantage because of the lack of mental health care access.

The good news is that telemedicine can help fill these gaps. In recent years, the use of telemedicine has expanded to support a number of medical specialties including behavioral health. Lawrence Gleit, EVP and general manager for behavioral health, MDLIVE, reports in Health IT Outcomes that virtual mental health counseling is as effective as in person consultation – and in some cases more so.

When 20% of Americans have a mental health disorder yet 56% of people diagnosed with mental health issues do not receive adequate treatment, it’s time to expand telemedicine to reach people with mental health disorders.

CHQI, in partnership with the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), is launching later this fall an enhanced “modular” approach to accreditation that will fit various telemedicine delivery models and specialty types, including e-psychiatry.  CHQI’s new “Telemedicine Accreditation Program” will help ensure that organizations providing telemedicine services follow quality-based standards, which in turn should help scale-up these much-needed services across the nation.

We are hopeful that accredited telemedicine organizations will help fill the gaps in rural settings and elsewhere where access to mental health services remains a significant barrier to Americans, who desperately need care.

To learn more about CHQI’s telemedicine accreditation program, click here