Mental health providers launch tele-counseling to treat more patients

Mental health providers launch tele-counseling to treat more patients

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - The mental health crisis continues in America. There's a shortage of mental health counselors and treatment for patients in need, but providers are now embracing technology to address the problem: they're utilizing video-conferencing.

Just like physicians see patients for viruses and other ailments over web cams, now mental health counselors are meeting with patients using the same technology. Tele-counseling is aimed at alleviating the country's shortage of mental health professionals.

"When people do have access, there are usually really long wait times," said Dr. Donovan Wong, Doctor on Demand's Medical Director of Behavioral Health.

Doctor on Demand is expanding its telemedicine service to include psychiatrists.  And it's private - Wong says sessions are encrypted and you don't have to leave your home.

"Instead of having to wait in the waiting room, you're actually going to be able to meet with the provider in the location that's most comfortable for you," said Wong.

We asked Wong how a provider can still observe a patient's body language and mannerisms, which are important in the treatment of mental health issues. He responded that psychiatrists can observe them through the web cams.

"Does someone look happy, do they look sad, angry? You're going to look at how are they groomed, are they taking care of themselves?" Wong explained.

Doctor on Demand is not alone in the field. Walgreens pharmacies also recently announced that it is offering online mental health counseling through Breakthrough, an MDLIVE company, to treat addictions, depression, stress and other issues.

Now the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority will use telemedicine for mental health counseling, too, but not in patients' homes. Patients will come to an RBHA facility and a counselor will be in the room with them while they talk to, say, a psychiatrist by camera.

RBHA CEO John Lindstrom showed us a counseling room with a moveable web cam and computer screen.

"I can be talking with you, and we can be interacting, and we have this third party who's in a conversation with us," he showed us, pointing to the camera and screen.

Lindstrom says it will help counselors see more patients in different locations.

"Telemedicine and telepsychiatry are one of the ways we're offsetting having people in the right place," said Lindstrom.

Virginia has not only wrestled with a shortage of mental health counselors, but at times, a shortage of beds in psychiatric hospitals. We asked Lindstrom whether telepsychiatry could help alleviate the bed shortage.

"Obviously you can't put somebody in a hospital bed in a virtual environment," said Lindstrom. "But it could potentially have the effect of reducing the number of cases that need to escalate to, say, inpatient hospitalization."

RBHA plans to start having some of its child psychologists utilize telemedicine this summer, and implement it into other types of counseling in the months after that.

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