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The Role of Telemedicine in Innovative Mental Healthcare

These days we all feel pulled in a hundred directions at once, and no one understands this more than mental health professionals. There simply isn’t enough time to do everything we want to do — or feel we ought to do.

And when we feel this overwhelming pressure to do more with less time, we start looking for new efficiencies. Oftentimes we find them in new, cutting-edge technologies or those gaining in popularity.

And that latter idea brings us to the subject of telemedicine.

Telemedicine isn’t completely new, but if you’ve never heard of it or used it, it is exactly as it sounds: the incorporation of a telephone to deliver treatment or diagnosis to a patient. And today this idea is hotter than ever because it delivers on a coveted goal: allowing you to essentially be in two places at once. In our cellphone-centric society, it’s not surprising the practice is increasing in popularity, but we are really only beginning to scratch the surface of what telemedicine can do.

In the mental health field, telemedicine’s role starts with addiction treatment. A program through the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) is using telemedicine to train rural healthcare professionals in medication-assisted treatment therapy and other skills necessary for working with opioid abuse patients. The three-year, $9 million project targets the rural areas where opioid use is so problematic.

Last year, the U.S. government also pledged $1.4 million in grant funding toward the creation of telemedicine programs targeting the Appalachian regions of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia where opioid use is especially high.

Telemedicine’s Impact on Mental Health Beyond Addiction

Telemedicine’s role in mental health is poised to boom beyond addiction. In fact, the field is so lucrative that Forbes is already calling it “the next frontier” for established telemedicine providers. Why?

It starts with the commonality of mental health conditions compared to other conditions like diabetes and heart diseases. After that, consider the plethora of people who would benefit from such a service — like the 50 percent who misuse their medication — and you can understand the peak motivators behind this expanded movement.

But there are others.

Telemedicine’s greatest opportunity in the mental health space may be its ability to break down barriers to patient accessibility challenges that aren’t found in other disciplines. For example, patients suffering with mental health disorders are more likely to face challenges getting sufficient insurance coverage for their treatment. There is also the social stigma of a mental health disorder that drives many patients away from receiving the treatment they need. Telemedicine offers the opportunity to deliver treatment in a more cost-effective and discrete way, satisfying both of these long-standing challenges — especially given Medicare’s 2015 decision to support seven mental health services.

This year’s foundation of telemedicine in mental health will be built upon the cornerstones of addiction treatment, cost control and patient accessibility. It’s a notable trio, but as the year progresses, don’t be surprised if the technology is incorporated to tackle other problems. Like many of us, telemedicine will be pulled in many directions in 2017. Fortunately, we think it’s up to the challenge.

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