Telepsychiatry program in Eastern NC helps with transition to telehealth during pandemic

Providers are moving to telehealth to increase access to quality health services and reduce required travel for patients. Residents of the Martin-Tyrrell-Washington (MTW) region had such a demand for behavioral health services that the health department provided gas cards to pay for travel to specialists in neighboring counties. In February 2019, Golden LEAF awarded funds to construct an addition on a building the health department purchased on its Plymouth campus for behavioral health and telepsychiatry services. The central location to the three-county service area provides new health services and reduces travel for patients.

“There is a big demand for mental health services in this part of the state,” said Wes Gray, Health Director of the MTW District Health Department. “We have very few psychiatrists in our service area. We are grateful to be able to offer behavioral health and psychiatric services locally to our service area.”

Natalie Wiggins (right) is the Front Desk Clerk for MTW’s behavioral health office.

The additional space in the facility enabled the creation of two full time positions: a public health nurse and a front desk clerk. The clinic also has a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) at the clinic two days a week and a psychiatrist who provides telehealth appointments one day a week through a relationship with East Carolina University. The office also has space for other behavioral health services.

Telehealth is helping most healthcare providers continue to provide access to quality care during this crisis. Because the behavioral health office was already set up for telepsychiatry, the MTW District Health Department was ready to switch all its services to telehealth when the COVID-19 pandemic reached North Carolina. While the psychiatry services were all performed remotely, the LCSW and public health nurse were seeing patients in the clinic until the pandemic.

“It is really helpful that health insurance companies are allowing providers to see patients through telehealth,” said Gray. “With telehealth services, we are seeing an increase in our show rate, with almost all patients making their appointments instead of canceling or not showing up.”

The behavioral health office provides referrals and screenings, therapy and counseling, healthy coping strategies, telepsychiatry services, psychiatric evaluation, and medication management.

“We expect an uptick in the number of referrals after the crisis, similar to after a hurricane or other natural disaster,” said Gray. “Most of our patients are referred to us through other providers.”

Golden LEAF is a partner for innovative projects that increase the number of workers in healthcare while providing expanded services to rural, economically distressed, and tobacco-dependent areas.

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