Mental health services expand across the state through ECU telemedicine

Hospital mental health services across the state will get a boost thanks to the expansion of an East Carolina University program that delivers expertise through a telemedicine network.

Gov. Pat McCrory and N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos joined ECU leaders in Greenville on Aug. 16 to announce the expansion.

State appropriations of $4 million over the next two years will grow a program that has served 14 hospitals in eastern North Carolina to 60 to 80 hospital emergency departments across the state. The majority of North Carolina emergency departments do not have access to a full-time psychiatrist, according to a 2010 study.

“There are a lot of other things that get publicity, but the thing that keeps me awake at night is substance abuse and mental health,” McCrory said during the announcement at Ross Hall on the campus of ECU. “This is an issue we can’t run away from. We have to reach out and help them.”

The statewide telepsychiatry program will begin operating in January. It will link hospital emergency departments to mental health professionals who can initiate treatment for emergency department patients in mental health or substance abuse crisis.

By using secure, real-time interactive audio and video technology at the bedside, telepsychiatry will enable mental health providers to diagnose and treat people needing care at any remote referring site. The program will be overseen by the DHHS Office of Rural Health and Community Care.

Dr. Sy Saeed, chair of psychiatric medicine at the Brody School of Medicine at ECU, was out of town during the announcement but spoke earlier about the impact of the telepsychiatry program.

“There is no health without mental health,” Saeed said. “If you don’t have professionals in the area, you have a problem. (The program is) growing, and we serve a much larger number of patients with telepsychiatry than we were ever able to reach.”

The expansion builds on the success of ECU’s Center for Telepsychiatry and e-Behavioral Health and the Albemarle Hospital Foundation Telepsychiatry Project. The General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services recommended this project.

To expand the program, ECU will develop a provider network and set technology infrastructure and guidelines for administering the program. An advisory group will work with the Statewide Telepsychiatry Program to promote collaboration among partners.

ECU’s telemedicine program has been in continuous operation since its inception in 1992, making it one of the longest running clinical telemedicine operations in the world.

Read more about the program and watch a video at