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NP Charlotte Stephens demonstrating how she would speak with a patient using telepsychiatry.

Charlotte Stephens, NP, demonstrating how she would speak with a patient using telepsychiatry.

“Whole-person care” for the winter

When you are depressed, you may feel irritable, restless, or have less interest in the things that once made you happy. You may feel anxious or have empty feelings.

During the winter months, these feelings can be intensified. If you need someone to talk to, Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System is making it easier to get help through telepsychiatry and counseling. The program allows patients to visit select primary care offices (listed below) and see a psychiatrist via video. In addition, there are counselors in these primary care offices to conduct in-person sessions with patients.

“Behavioral health care in our region is a scarce resource,” said Wendy Barnes, program coordinator for the Medical Group of the Carolinas telepsychiatry and therapy program. “Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System is always looking for better and more effective ways to meet patients where they are.”

Addressing the needs of the community

Adding telepsychiatry to select primary care offices gives patients more “whole-person care,” looking at every aspect of both physical and mental health.

Spartanburg Regional launched its telepsychiatry program in September 2018 with funding from a Duke Endowment Grant, which was awarded in response to the behavioral health needs of South Carolina and patients in rural areas.

“One of the largest unmet needs in South Carolina is mental health services,” said Marc Bingham, MD, Spartanburg Regional’s vice president and system chief clinical informatics officer and medical director of telehealth. “With this program, people have access to mental health providers located throughout the state, and the specialists are able to provide care to patients in Upstate rural areas without traveling.”

The program is aimed at patients with short-term mental health needs or conditions that may not require in-person care, such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder.

“Our goal is to integrate more behavioral health into our patients’ overall care,” Barnes said. “Integrative, collaborative care is the best way to improve health outcomes for our community.”

Creating convenience and privacy

To enroll in the telepsychiatry program, patients can get a referral from their primary care physician.

When patients arrive for a telepsychiatry appointment, they simply check in at their primary care office the same way they would for a regular office visit. The staff will bring patients to an office that’s set aside for telepsychiatry and includes video conferencing equipment.

“By offering this service at primary care offices, we’re hoping to eliminate the barriers of transportation and location for patients who live in rural counties,” Barnes said.

Barnes is on-site with the patient for the first visit to walk them through the process and answer questions. The patient can schedule additional appointments after each visit, and they will always meet with the same telepsychiatry counselor.

Another benefit to the telepsychiatry program is that patients don’t have to travel to an office specifically for behavioral health and can maintain privacy about why they are visiting the doctor.

“While we don’t believe there should be a stigma associated with mental health treatment, we know it exists in the community,” Dr. Bingham said. “With telepsychiatry, we’ve been able to help more people because it’s more anonymous.”

Currently, telepsychiatry is available at these primary care practices:

Finding innovative ways to meet patients’ needs

In addition to telepsychiatry in primary care offices, Spartanburg Regional also provides telepsychiatry in emergency departments at Spartanburg Medical Center, Cherokee Medical Center, Union Medical Center and Pelham Medical Center.

Similar to the primary care program, the emergency department telepsychiatry program provides virtual visits with behavioral health providers. This program helps ensure there is 24/7 access to a mental health expert.

“Emergency room doctors are very skilled, but they’re not going to have the same training and knowledge as a psychiatrist or behavioral health counselor,” Dr. Bingham said. “It’s incredibly important to have this access for patients in a crisis.”

Looking to the future, Spartanburg Regional will continue to focus on expanding the telepsychiatry program, especially in rural Union and Cherokee counties. Primary care offices are also working to add more on-site counselors to integrate virtual and in-person visits.

“Our community’s population continues to grow, which means we’re going to need to provide more care,” Barnes said. “We need to find intelligent, innovative ways to meet that need.”

Speak with your primary care physician about telepsychiatry. Learn more about telehealth services offered through Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System.