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Psychiatry telehealth services aim to close behavioral health gap in rural Pa.

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A Lancaster County nonprofit is addressing disparities in access to behavioral health care by providing telepsychology services locally and to more rural areas in the state.

Facing a nationwide shortage of psychiatrists, Community Services Group is connecting available doctors to patients through video technology.

The concept of telepsych is similar to a growing practice in the physical health care world — telehealth, which is becoming increasingly popular with health care providers and insurers in Central Pennsylvania.

“It is picking up momentum in our state,” said James Martin, the director of treatment services for Community Services Group. “It’s probably a little bit lagging behind physical health’s telehealth.”

Community Services Group is offering telepsych services in Lancaster and Williamsport, and it is helping Hanover-based TrueNorth Wellness Services expand behavioral health care in the rural areas it serves — Franklin and Fulton counties.

How it works

Community Services Group started offering telepsych in Williamsport first, in 2008, according to Martin. The services were expanded to Lancaster in 2013. TrueNorth adopted the program that same year for children and adolescents, and expanded it to adults in 2014.

It works like this: patients go to an outpatient office location where they are seen by a nurse. First, patients undergo all of the traditional services to start the appointment, such as the nurse recording weight and blood pressure and taking a medical history.

Then, the patient sits in front of a TV screen and is connected to the doctor.

According to Erin Glenn, TrueNorth’s clinical supervisor for Franklin and Fulton counties, the doctor can zoom in on patients and evaluate their behavior as they are talking. The patients can’t see this happening.

Challenges

Telepysch services, while reaching a wider population, come with their own set of challenges for providers.

While state and county funding cover telepsych services, most private insurers do not, Glenn said.

Nonetheless, insurers are starting to approach Community Services Group or have expressed an interest in considering covering telepsych, according to Martin.

The cost for telepsych services is higher than face-to-face psychiatry appointments.

Martin explained that the higher cost is driven by the need for equipment and the fact that patients can only get care at licensed facilities.

For security purposes, the video monitor uses a dedicated connection. There also needs to be a person on-site where the patient is receiving care.

Despite the obstacles, providers are optimistic about the service's potential.

“It has allowed us to provide services to a lot more people that would be waiting a much longer time, or driving a great distance,” Glenn said.

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