According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), each year one in five US adults experiences mental illness, yet less than half of those diagnosed actually receive proper treatment for their condition. Among the many different factors contributing to this treatment shortfall is the reality that there simply aren’t enough qualified psychiatrists to meet community need.
To help overcome this and other barriers that limit access to comprehensive behavioral health services, The University of Toledo Medical Center (UTMC) has launched a telehealth program that brings treatment directly to patients via telecommunication technologies, such as their computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Victoria Kelly, MD, psychiatrist at UTMC, has long championed telehealth as a way to close gaps in treatment access for behavioral health patients. In fact, she has even testified about the importance of telehealth before Ohio’s House of Representatives. She notes that telehealth has clearly demonstrated its value to the healthcare field during the current COVID-19 crisis, and hopes the legislature and insurance providers will continue to recognize how well it works and provide coverage for the platform after the pandemic has abated.
“Teleheath has proved to be absolutely amazing in the field of health care overall and more specifically in psychiatry and behavioral health, allowing us to meet with many more patients one on one as well as collaborate remotely with primary care doctors, pediatricians, and other providers,” Dr. Kelly states.
The use of telehealth not only allows the limited number of psychiatrists to reach a much larger segment of the patient population, but it also helps remove many barriers to treatment access at the patient’s end. For example, lacking reliable transportation and/or childcare, living in a remote location, or being homebound due to mobility limitations can present a major obstacle to keeping behavioral health appointments. However, when the psychiatrist and patient are able to connect virtually through telecommunication technology, these issues become less burdensome.
Dr. Kelly also points out that patients with certain diagnoses often prefer being treated through telehealth. “For instance, people with anxiety disorders often feel safer and less exposed behind the screen, which can actually encourage them to open up and reveal more about themselves to the psychiatrist.”
Of course, telehealth is not without its challenges. One is the technology learning curve, which is different for every patient. In addition, some patients lack access to a data plan for video calls, have spotty WiFi access, don’t own a smartphone, or only have a landline. “Using the telehealth platform has really opened our eyes to these disparities in different populations,” says Dr. Kelly. “But identifying barriers also gives us the opportunity to help eliminate them by linking patients to various social resources.”
Dr. Kelly further explains that in behavioral health care, certain things are better—or necessarily—done in person, such as performing physical examinations for movement disorders, checking blood pressure and other vital signs, administering long-term injectable medications, monitoring for medication side effects, and performing psychiatric evaluations on new patients when it is essential to observe their body language and discern their tone of voice. Nonetheless, the platform’s benefits far exceed any limitations.
With the current COVID-19 crisis having such a profound impact on our lives, Dr. Kelly emphasizes that it’s especially critical for people with mental-health or substance-abuse issues to maintain access to counseling and treatment. She notes that many behavioral-health and recovery support groups have moved online, allowing people to benefit from greater access. Any area residents needing immediate help can call the Mental Health & Recovery Services Board of Lucas County Helpline at 419-255-3125 to connect to mental health and addiction treatment 24/7.
She also encourages people who are feeling anxious about the current pandemic to search online for the term “FACE COVID.” This acronym, created by Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, is a set of practical steps for responding effectively to the COVID-19 crisis, using the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy. “This approach can be very helpful in teaching people how to confront and cope with their negative feelings, which is a skill that will benefit them long after the COVID-19 crisis has ended,” Dr. Kelly says.
To learn more about about behavioral health services available at UTMC, call 419-383-3815 or visit utmc.utoledo.edu.