Telepsychiatry Bridges Gap to Help Create Better Access to Mental Health Services
DAVIS, Calif.—Every year, more and more patients experiencing urgent mental health issues come to emergency rooms across California in need of help—just one example of the state’s growing mental health challenges.
To ensure patients are evaluated as soon as possible by a licensed psychiatrist, 16 hospitals across Sutter Health’s not-for-profit, integrated network use a telepsychiatry service that draws on teams of qualified providers from around the country. That includes Sutter Davis Hospital, which has provided this service to around 80 patients since it launched at the hospital about a year ago.
“We were very excited because, with increasing population and mental health challenges, access to psychiatrists was just a must,” says Harpreet Bains, nurse manager for Sutter Davis’ medical/surgical and intensive care units. “Now that we have it, I can only say that it’s working really well.”
Bains points to a number of situations where the telepsychiatry service has helped a patient get the right care at the right time and the right place by providing 24/7 access to providers. Those might include determining if a patient has the mental capacity to make decisions related to their medical care, whether they need an adjustment to their medications or what certain changes in behavior may be indicating. It’s also been helpful with care transitions, she says, such as helping ensure that an elderly patient was ready to transfer from the hospital setting to a nursing home.
“Delivering optimal care to patients during mental health emergencies is a multifaceted challenge,” says John Boyd, Psy.D., CEO of Sutter Mental Health Services. “As healthcare providers, it is our duty to ensure they receive quality, compassionate and timely care, in the most appropriate setting.”
Sutter Mental Health Services works with Virtual Medical Staff, which recruits providers and manages the call center that takes in requests for consultation. The call center has a single number that every hospital uses to access the service. The expectation is that telepsychiatry providers are available within one hour of a request to the call center. All telepsychiatry providers are physicians, hold privileges in each of the Sutter hospitals where the service is available, have the ability to review records, enter notes in Sutter’s medical record system and put in orders.
Using safe and secure video conferencing technology that is also HIPAA compliant, telepsychiatrists can visit with patients 13 years or older via a workstation equipped with a computer screen that can be wheeled into the patient’s room. If the patient is alert and oriented, the nurse then leaves the room to provide additional privacy. If needed, they stay to help facilitate the interaction between patient and provider. Given the prevalence of electronic devices in daily life, patients have been receptive to seeing a psychiatrist this way, Bains said.
“Because of the way it works, they still feel like they’re connecting,” she says. “Seeking mental health services isn’t looked at as taboo anymore—that’s one thing I love, that people have this additional way to talk about the help they need.”
Tim Jones, Sutter Health’s telepsychiatry program manager, explains that extra layer of support broadens access for patients across Sutter’s diverse not-for-profit network, which ranges from the Gold Country foothills through the greater Sacramento area and downward to Silicon Valley.
“We have several rural-area hospitals inside our geographic footprint. In some instances, there are very limited options for psychiatry services or none at all,” Jones said. “But the need for psychiatric care is constant. We worked very hard to identify an option that would treat the whole patient, mind and body, in an acute-care setting.”
The benefits of telepsychaitry haven’t gone unnoticed. The American Psychiatric Association notes the service improves access to mental health evaluations, reduce delays in care and enhance continuity of treatment, since outpatient care is often recommended for patients once they are released from the hospital.
Since Sutter Health’s telepsychiatry program launched, more than 4,200 patients have been received services. For Jones, it’s a sign of progress.
“We believe this is the right thing to do for patients. It can have a very powerful cumulative effect,” he said.