Governor Pat McCrory and Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos, M.D., joined leaders of East Carolina University in Greenville today to announce the details of a statewide telepsychiatry plan. The plan will improve access to mental health professionals and help an increasing number of North Carolinians.
"No matter where you live in North Carolina, you will soon have better access to mental health providers with the expansion of telepsychiatry across our state," said Governor McCrory. "Technology will help us connect people with appropriate treatment programs so patients can avoid long waits in the emergency room. North Carolina can be a national leader with this program."
The statewide telepsychiatry program begins operations in January 2014. 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, telepsychiatry will enable a mental health provider to diagnose and treat individuals needing care at any remote referring site. The state will invest $4 million over two years in the statewide telepsychiatry program and it will be overseen by the DHHS Office of Rural Health and Community Care.
The Statewide Telepsychiatry Program builds on the success of East Carolina University'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.
According to federal guidelines, 58 counties in North Carolina now qualify as Health Professional Shortage Areas due to a lack of mental health providers. The majority of North Carolina emergency departments do not have access to a full-time psychiatrist. Today, patients often either wait or receive less than optimum care because of the lack of available mental health practitioners.
"During my travels to hospitals around North Carolina, it is apparent that improving quality and access to mental health services must be a priority for our state," said Secretary Aldona Wos, M.D. "By investing in a statewide telepsychiatry program, we are confronting one of North Carolina's biggest and most important healthcare challenges. Through this program, we will be able to help hospitals struggling to meet mental health and substance abuse treatment needs in their communities and connect people in underserved areas of our state to qualified behavioral health providers."
The ECU Center for Telepsychiatry will develop a provider network and establish the needed technology infrastructure and guidelines for administering the program. An advisory group will work with the Statewide Telepsychiatry Program to promote collaboration among partners.
"Mission Health is looking forward to joining the Telepsychiatry Network. We know from direct experience that telehealth in general, and telepsychiatry specifically, expedites access for some of our most vulnerable patients and significantly improves the way we can diagnose, treat and support them," said Ronald A. Paulus, M.D., president and CEO of Mission Health in Asheville. "The state's commitment to this program is an important sign of good faith that allows us to continue to bring timely, expert care to the people in rural communities throughout western North Carolina."
The state's hospital association praised the initiative to expand telepsychiatry across North Carolina.
"Telepsychiatry is a valuable tool that EDs (Emergency Departments) in North Carolina use to get psychiatric services to patients in a cost-effective and timely manner," said Bill Pully, president of the N.C. Hospital Association. "It can reduce lengths of stay and free up emergency resources for medical emergencies. Increasing access to telepsychiatry is good for behavioral health patients, medical patients, and the entire health care delivery system."
The East Carolina University (ECU) 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.
"This project is about providing evidence-based mental health care to our patients regardless of where they may be located in North Carolina," said Dr. Sy Saeed, chair of the Department of Psychiatric Medicine at ECU's Brody School of Medicine. "As we do that, we are beginning to bridge the gap between science and practice that exists today in all areas of medicine."
Since the Albemarle Hospital Foundation telepsychiatry initiative's implementation in May 2011, more than 4,000 psychiatric assessments have been provided to patients in emergency departments experiencing a mental health crisis. Initial project outcomes include reduction in patients' lengths of stay, reductions in 30-day recidivism rates, and reductions in involuntary commitments to inpatient psychiatric facilities. Specifically, lengths of stay for patients discharged to inpatient treatment have dropped from an average of 48 hours pre-telepsychiatry to 22.5 hours since the program began.
"With this simple, common-sense reform of our state's health care system, we can improve access to mental health care throughout the state, reduce the burden on emergency rooms, and reduce costs for all," said N.C. Representative Susan Martin (Pitt, Wilson). "We must continue to modernize our health care system with further reforms that reduce layers of government bureaucracy, so our doctors and nurses spend more time treating patients and our citizens receive the best return on our health care investments."