Outpatient telepsychiatry is the delivery of telepsychiatry services in an outpatient setting, usually within a community health center. With nearly one in five U.S. adults living with mental illness today, outpatient telepsychiatry is leveraging the power of technology to help more people access the mental healthcare they need.
The U.S. is facing a national shortage of behavioral health clinicians, particularly in rural and other remote parts of the country. More than 60 percent of rural Americans currently live in designated mental health shortage areas. In addition, 60 percent of psychiatrists are 55 or older, and their impending retirement is creating “an escalating crisis” in mental health care capacity, according to one 2017 report. As a result, many are going without these critical services. One 2015 study found that 62 percent of adults with mental illness weren’t receiving treatment.
Without appropriate care, mental illness can ravage families and communities through increased suicide risks, low worker productivity, co-morbidities, and higher direct treatment costs for emergency room visits and hospitalizations. It’s clear that care access needs to improve – and technology is helping to enhance access significantly.
Transforming treatment through technology
As digital innovation transforms the healthcare industry, telepsychiatry is a prime example of leveraging technology to solve large-scale healthcare challenges. At its core, telepsychiatry is simply psychiatry practiced at a distance, with the clinician-patient interaction taking place through live two-way videoconferencing instead of in person. Research shows that telepsychiatry is as effective as in-person treatment, producing similar clinical outcomes for patients from a range of backgrounds, ages and diagnoses.
By allowing clinicians to work from any location, telepsychiatry helps to address the shortage and uneven distribution of psychiatrists, particularly for underserved areas. For patients who are reluctant to visit a mental health specialist’s office because they fear being stigmatized, telepsychiatry can also help reduce that stigma by enabling patients to receive care from their primary care physician’s office or community health center.
Not all telepsychiatry practices (or approaches) are created equal, however. Regardless of whether they meet virtually or in person, the patient-clinician relationship matters. According to the American College of Physicians, “the most efficient, beneficial telemedicine use” requires an ongoing partnership between the patient and physician, creating the same trust and understanding that develops in the exam room. This approach to providing telepsychiatry services is often referred to as the integrated care model.
The advantages of the integrated care model in providing outpatient telepsychiatry
Under this model of care, patients visit their primary care doctor’s office, community health center or other health care facility for telepsychiatry sessions with their mental health telepsychiatrist. The telepsychiatrist works closely with the in-person treatment team to provide optimal care to patients.
Through this integrated model, outpatient telepsychiatry can help health care systems:
- Offer dependable access to care. More than just a stopgap, telepsychiatrists become part of the long-term solution. By procuring a telepsychiatrist with the right experience, skills and personality for their patient populations, health care facilities can help patients get the care they need more easily and quickly.
- Provide a collaborative approach to care. Optimal care relies on the collaboration between the telepsychiatrist and the in-person team. The facility’s team plays a critical role by welcoming the patient, making sure the patient is engaged in their care and evaluating each patient’s vital signs. In addition, the team can alert the telepsychiatrist if the patient smells like alcohol or is under the influence of drugs.
- Decrease the cost of care. While health care costs continue to rise, telepsychiatry can help to reduce those costs by providing earlier care, which can help patients avoid more expensive emergency room visits and hospital admissions.
In a digitally connected world, access to mental health care should be a given, regardless of where a person lives. By combining technology with a patient-centered approach, the integrated care model in outpatient telepsychiatry has the potential to eliminate the access gap, improve care delivery and value, and get more people the treatment they need.