ROCKINGHAM — For Richmond County residents seeking mental health services, a trip out of town may no longer be necessary.
Patients can have access to a psychiatrist by simply turning on a computer.
The service, called telepsychiatry, is now offered by Community Care of the Sandhills in Pinehurst, which has five sites in Richmond County, including the Richmond County Health Department.
Telepsychiatry provides psychiatric services via video and audio streaming to remote locations. The service provides patients an opportunity to have access to resources that may not be available to them in their area.
“There’s just not enough psychiatrists available,” said Tommy Jarrell, health director of Richmond County. “They tend to migrate to larger areas, but there are still patients here with psychiatric needs.”
In the past 16 months, Community Care has completed appointments for 250 new patients in Richmond County alone.
“We’re about two years into our project,” said Andrew Clendenin, behavioral health program manager at Community Care. “Our goal is to bring psychiatric care to rural communities. We currently have 40 primary care sites and serve seven counties for telepsychiatry, including Richmond County.”
There are currently five psychiatrists available to Richmond County residents through the program.
“What this does is it gives us the ability to see to those needs,” Jarrell said. “A patient will be put in a room with privacy and have a one-on-one with a psychiatrist.”
The new service is not only seeing to patient needs, but it is also helping with making the entire situation more convenient and comfortable for patients.
“The real benefit is the patient can go to their primary care office for this service,” Clendenin said. “The patient doesn’t have to drive to another area for a doctor, they can be seen in their home community. Part of the benefit with that is it helps reduce any stigma that may attach to a person in need of psychiatric help. Also patients can be seen more quickly instead of having to wait weeks for an appointment.”
So far, the program has been met with positive results, but it may not be for everyone.
“It may not work for every type of person,” Jarrell said. “We have had some of our patients who really are comfortable with that environment. They like that environment. I’m sure there are others that would prefer a face-to-face interaction, but I think the response at this point has been very positive.”
Clendenin said that telemedicine is where health care is moving and is a good thing for rural communities that may not have the resources to cover all the physical and mental needs of the residents.
According to the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, 28 counties across the state do not have a psychiatrist.
“About 80 percent of our patient population are children,” Clendenin said. “Telemedicine is almost second nature to them with the technology available today. I really see it (telemedicine) branching out into other areas. We’re using it for telepsychiatry now because we are meeting a real need in these communities.”