Telepsychiatry adds needed support

By Tamera Manzanares

When a person isn’t feeling well, their first stop usually is their family health care provider. Primary care providers see patients with a wide range of complaints including depression, anxiety and other symptoms affecting both their physical and mental wellbeing. As many as 85 percent of physician visits are for problems that have a significant psychological or behavioral health component, according to the American Psychological Association.

This presents both a problem and a solution. In rural areas, behavioral health providers, especially psychiatric specialists who can prescribe medication, are in short supply. This shifts more behavioral health care to primary care providers, who may not have the expertise to treat more complex mental health conditions. One answer is to bring specialty care to the primary care setting. This is happening at Northwest Colorado Health’s clinics in Craig and Steamboat Springs, where medical and behavioral health providers work together to help patients coping with problems such as stress, sadness and sleeplessness. Telepsychiatry, which connects patients to a psychiatric professional via videoconference, is the most recent addition.

“Physical and emotional health are interrelated,” said Lilia Luna, licensed clinical psychologist and behavioral health coordinator at Northwest Colorado Health. “Providing access to psychiatric support and medication management gets us closer to our goal of helping our patients achieve optimal overall health.” Northwest Colorado Health recently rolled out telepsychiatry at its clinic in Craig and hopes to have it available in Steamboat Springs by the end of 2017. Mind Springs Health is contracting with Northwest Colorado Health to provide a psychiatric nurse practitioner located in Grand Junction for the telepsychiatry appointments.

Here’s how it works. If a medical provider at Northwest Colorado Health determines a patient needs more specialized medication management support, they are referred to a behavioral health provider at the clinic for diagnostic evaluation. The behavioral health provider will then arrange an appointment with the telepsychiatry provider. Northwest Colorado Health provides a private room and secure technology for the videoconference appointment. Patients have an average of three appointments. Once a medication plan is established, the patient is referred back to the medical provider or to a local psychiatric professional for more extensive treatment. Patients may pay for telephychiatry appointments on sliding fee scale. No one is denied care due to inability to pay.

The hope is that telepsychiary will help meet a need for both affordable and timely psychiatric support in Moffat and Routt counties. Mind Springs Health, a community mental health clinic, accepts Medicaid or payment on a sliding fee scale, but patients may have to wait a month or more to see a psychiatric provider. Mind Springs Health Regional Director Tom Gangel said telepsychiatry at Northwest Colorado Health is an opportunity to reach patients who can be helped with medications but may not otherwise seek the support they need. “Most people agree that the closer we can get to one stop shopping for this type of health care is better, and this is a good step in that direction,” he said.

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