Tuesday, August 20, 2013
A patient facing a mental health crisis can be no better served than with timely face-to-face interaction with a psychiatrist or similarly trained professional. Unfortunately, a lack of mental health providers across North Carolina — a shortage exacerbated by a disastrous reform effort more than a decade ago — means that far too many rely on the emergency room — or go without treatment.
The establishment of a statewide telepsychiatry network aims to boldly address that problem by building on a successful partnership involving East Carolina University’s telepsychiatry program, an outgrowth of its telemedicne initiative. If successful, North Carolina may be able to provide faster, better quality care to people in crisis through a program that could well become a pioneer for the nation.
In 2001, Gov. Mike Easley’s administration embarked on an ill-fated reform of the state’s mental health system. Investigative reports by the Raleigh News & Observer identified $400 million spent on unneeded services and widespread patient abuse and neglect in the state’s mental hospitals. The quality of care declined sharply, leaving some of the most vulnerable patients without the attention they require.
Though the system has recovered somewhat, North Carolina still lacks the resources and infrastructure needed to provide treatment to those most in need. Some 58 counties are listed by Washington as health professional shortage areas, yet the state ranks 12th in state mental health care spending per capita, per the most recent numbers compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Clearly, the state can do better, and Gov. Pat McCrory believes that a program developed at East Carolina can help lead the way. He came to Greenville last week to announce the state’s $4 million investment in developing a statewide telepsychiatry network, expanding the school’s Center for Telepsychiatry and e-Behavioral Health and the Albemarle Hospital Foundation Telepsychiatry Project.
Beginning in 2014, emergency departments will be linked to mental health professionals via secure interactive audio/video technology. Patients in rural communities will have improved access to care and those in crisis will receive treatments and assessments quickly. The program intends to extend the reach of access while reducing demand on emergency room workers and lowering the state’s cost.
This may be a modest step forward for mental health care in North Carolina, but it is a promising one that can be expanded in time. State officials, led by the governor, deserve support for this initiative, which could dramatically improve the lives of thousands across the state.