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Telepsychiatry: The future of mental health care?

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GREENVILLE, N.C. - It's becoming a popular method for a person not living near a mental health provider to get effective treatment.
     
Telepsychiatry is exploding. And recently, Governor McCrory unveiled a telepsychiatry program developed at ECU he's expanding statewide.
     
Those who run it say it's cost-effective and helps cut down on overcrowding at emergency departments.

“I think this system has helped us to bring an improved level of care to, to give them inpatient care in the emergency department that was sometimes not as focused on as it is now,” said Dr. Barry Bunn, Medical Director at Vidant Edgecombe.

In hospitals that don't have a mental health program, telepsychiatry provides an innovative solution for those who don't have access to the care they need.

“One of the things that this system really helps us to do is care for those patients that aren't in the door and out the door within 6 of 7 hours those patients that have to stay for an extended period of time,” said Dr. Bunn.

"So what would happen is a patient shows up and they are basically sitting in that emergency department needing and waiting for service," said Dr. Sy Saeed, Director of Telepsychiatry at ECU.
 
Services they require, but seldom find in parts of eastern North Carolina.
     
Patients and doctors separated by distance form the basis of this new way of looking at the problem.
     
Dr. Sy Saeed, Director of Telepsychiatry at ECU, is part of a group providing the solution.

"And that's where once you start thinking in that term it becomes a no brainer that a telemedicine and telepsychiatry become the answer here," he said.

In hospitals that don't have psychiatric services, patients can sit for hours, sometimes days, bogging down crowded emergency departments with patients that simply aren't getting treated.

The ER is not the best place for someone in mental crisis.
     
While 9 On Your Side was there, 4 patients were there for psychiatric services.

The emergency department at Vidant Edgecombe only has 20 beds. So, that's a 5th of the space available, filled with non-emergency psychiatric needs.

"The hospitals were going to the legislature and saying we have this crowding in our ED and we need some solution to the problem," said Dr. Saeed.

So the hospital association lobbied the North Carolina General Assembly to help solve the problem since for many the ER is the only available option.
     
But now, telepsychiatry provides a solution being rolled out to ER across the east.

“The machine is a High Definition TV with microphone, speaker, and Wi-Fi technology," said Dr. Bunn.

It’s a technology that allows psychiatrists to evaluate someone in a matter of hours. Before, it could've taken days.

"Telepsych is contacted they call in remotely on this particular unit and umm the unit is set up they have access to affect speaker volume microphone and the location of the camera so that they can see the patient and patient can see them,” said Dr. Bunn. “And so, this technology brings a sub-specialist, which are few in number, especially in eastern North Carolina. It brings them to the bedside of the patient that otherwise they would have to go somewhere else."  

Now, you might think people are put off talking about their problem to a psychiatrist on a TV screen. But they're not.

"After the first few seconds usually within a minute people forget all about the camera and it's very much like the real face to face visit,” said Dr. Saeed.

Patients are connected to the doctor over a secure portal. The doctor has the patients records in front of them, informed to help in real-time.

"Medical recommendations on the types of medicines that need to be initiated that would usually be started on the inpatient basis and not given in the emergency room department those medicines are being initiated and then the patient is followed by the psychiatrist through their stay until the transfer to the in-patient facility," said Dr. Bunn.

Before telepsychiatry, doctors and nurses spent a lot of time buried in paperwork. But not anymore.

"It’s a benefit, it really has helped a lot, it’s a benefit and I hope it sticks around," said Toria Moore, Registered Nurse.  

“Surprised by the effectiveness of,” said Andrew Lytton, Physicians Assistant, Jacksonville. “Ya kinda stand back and look at it sometimes and you think, this is not something we could have done a year ago.”

Right now, there are 18 hospitals, participating in the program in the east. NC Step, as it's being called, is set to expand statewide January 1st.
     
42 hospitals are currently on the waiting list.

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