Telepsychiatry: ECU’s innovative answer to North Carolina’s mental health shortage

A void in mental health providers now qualifies 58 of North Carolina’s 100 counties as Health Professional Shortage Areas, according to federal guidelines. The effects of this shortage are far-reaching:

For patients, there are long lines and limited access to psychiatric counsel.

For the (mostly rural) hospitals navigating these at-risk patients – usually through their emergency departments, due to lack of local mental health facilities – the shortage means a less efficient, more expensive business to manage.

For ECU, a school dedicated to increasing health care access across our state, this shortage signaled something else. An opportunity to make a difference.

Telepsychiatry uses real time, two-way interactive video and audio connections to connect patients with physicians located remotely. The Brody School of Medicine’s innovative approach to telepsychiatry has already begun increasing delivery of care and decreasing costs for some of eastern North Carolina’s most vulnerable hospitals.

Beginning in January, up to 80 more hospitals across the state will benefit from our telepsychiatry model, thanks to the General Assembly’s recent measure to expand the program to underserved hospitals statewide. This announcement, made official by Gov. Pat McCrory’s visit to our campus, is big – for both North Carolina and ECU – for many reasons.   

Why we need it: The percentage of people admitted to hospital emergency departments in North Carolina with mental health issues is nearly double the national average – and that doesn’t even include substance abuse-related cases. Again, more than half of our state’s counties lack sufficient mental health resources (in fact, a majority of the state’s hospitals lack access to a full time psychiatrist). In a nutshell: as long as North Carolina’s growing demand for mental health services far exceeds supply, wait times and costs will continue to soar as efficiency and quality of care plummet.

How ECU’s telepsychiatry program works: An emergency department nurse rolls a camera, monitor and audio equipment into the room of a patient experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis. They are quickly connected with a remote intake specialist and psychiatrist who assess the patient’s mental state and recommend treatment to the hospital physicians.

How it’s working now: Telepsychiatry stands as a shining example of Brody’s innovative approach to solving North Carolina’s health care access problem. Founded in 1992, ECU’s telepsychiatry program is one of the longest running clinical telemedicine operations in the world.

The network currently serves 14 hospitals in eastern North Carolina. And it’s producing results: cutting the length of inpatient stays in half, dropping 30-day recidivism rates and reducing involuntary commitments to inpatient psychiatric facilities.

Worthy of expansion: The recent state appropriation of $4 million over the next two years will help expand the state’s telepsychiatry network to up to 80 hospitals statewide. When the expansion takes effect in January, we expect these great results to continue. Patients, hospitals and their communities will all benefit – and ECU will remain hard at work to continue pairing North Carolina’s health needs with innovative solutions.