Hooking up with your doctor remotely

Screens, cameras, microphones allow Rapp residents ‘telehealth’ treatment

The PATH Foundation, which serves Rappahannock, Fauquier and northern Culpeper counties, has invested $370,000 in cutting-edge “telehealth” medical services — including remote mental health treatment and innovative tele-psychiatry — at the Fauquier Free Clinic [FFC].

Patients receiving telehealth services are able to meet with the same psychiatrist or therapist to ensure they are able to establish a personal relationship. Two rooms with large computer screens, equipped with cameras and microphones, allow patients to talk with their provider.

The collaborative care model goes beyond mental health. With medical, dental and mental health services under one roof, patients can be referred across specialties to ensure overall health needs are addressed.

Patients have shared with Shannon Raybuck, the FFC’s mental health care coordinator, that it’s not as impersonal as it may sound.

“I’ve heard from many patients that after the first couple of minutes, they forget they’re meeting remotely,” she says. “And as people have gotten more used to this type of communication, it isn’t as foreign as it once may have seemed.”

Created to fill gaps in local resources, the grant was awarded for the program’s start-up costs and first year of operation, according to PATH spokesperson Amy Petty.

Rob Marino, executive director of the FFC, says the services have helped meet a substantially growing need.

“When we started the program in late October, we had 33 patients on our waiting list for behavioral health services,” he says. “Our volunteer therapists do great work, but the number of patients in need greatly exceeds their available time. Plus, we didn’t have any psychiatry services available.

“Adding the telehealth option has made an incredible difference for our patients, but it’s also made a difference for our physicians. Having the resources to refer a patient to specialists leads to overall better care.”

While some patients directly seek out mental health services, all patients at the clinic are screened for depression as behavioral health problems can negatively affect the management of physical illnesses and health outcomes. About half of the patients receiving mental health services are referred from hose screenings.

Sallie Morgan, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Fauquier County, liked the idea of bringing tele-psychiatry to the FFC:  “Behavioral health is certainly a community-wide issue, but with a critical shortage of local mental health professionals, patients eligible for care at the clinic are an especially vulnerable population.

“Hopefully in the near future this can be an option for the broader community.”

The numbers show that the program is reaching the patients in need. In December, of the 70 patients treated, half used the telehealth services (12 psychiatry, 23 counseling). January’s numbers rose to a total of 107 patients receiving mental health services, with 54 patients using telehealth services (23 psychiatry, 31 counseling).

The FFC offers care to uninsured and low income residents of Rappahannock and Fauquier, though telehealth services are currently only available at the clinic’s Warrenton office.

Christy Connolly, president and CEO of the PATH Foundation, says support of the effort was important to both the board and staff.

“With mental health as one of our core areas of focus, we felt this was a great opportunity to offer these services,” she says. “Like many rural communities, our area is incredibly underserved in psychiatric and mental health providers. This program’s value can’t be overstated.”

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