In many rural areas across the U.S., and even in a lot of urban areas, there’s a huge lack of access to psychiatry or behavioral health services in general. Partially due to the ongoing (and worsening) psychiatry shortage, many healthcare organizations find it difficult to locate high-quality, local behavioral health providers to serve their communities.
And, those challenges compound when an organization needs more specialized care — like bilingual providers or providers who specialize in working with children or older populations. Fortunately, telepsychiatry can go a long way toward filling those care gaps.
In this piece, we’ll break down how telepsychiatry can specifically benefit shortage areas across the country, what challenges your healthcare organization might face in implementing a telepsychiatry program, and best practices that will set you up for success.
What is a shortage area?
Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) is a federal designation that identifies an area as having a geographic shortage, which means there’s a shortage of providers for everyone in a defined geographic area. There are also population-based shortages areas — Medically Underserved Areas (MUAs) or Medically Underserved Populations (MUPs), which signify a shortage of providers for a specific group of people — for example, migrant farmworkers or low-income patients. Organizations that qualify as facility HPSAs include public hospitals or nonprofit outpatient centers, correctional facilities, state mental health hospitals, and FQHCs.
Telepsychiatry can provide critical behavioral health support to shortage areas
Shortage areas or HPSAs may be a particularly good fit for telepsychiatry programs because they are disproportionately affected by the national psychiatrist shortage. Healthcare organizations in HSPAs are often unable to have an in-person provider on staff for their care setting, , but through telepsychiatry, they can access quality providers from across the country. Without utilizing telepsychiatry services, organizations will often find themselves with long wait times — or without care entirely.
Having access to providers all over the country who can provide excellent care quickly and conveniently is a huge benefit for these organizations.
Telepsychiatry can also open up access to providers with specific specialties that would otherwise be nearly impossible for healthcare organizations in HPSAs to staff. For example, in communities where the prominent language spoken isn’t English, having access to a telepsychiatry provider who speaks that language is a huge benefit to patients as it enables them to see someone who they feel they can connect with. Additionally, some providers specialize in mental healthcare for LGBTQ patients or other specific patient populations. It can be hugely beneficial to have access to someone who is an expert in that area.
Through telepsychiatry, your organization can access those specialties and fill gaps you can’t fill through your local provider network.
Challenges and considerations for implementing telepsychiatry programs in HPSAs
Whenever your organization begins the process of searching for a telepsychiatry provider, it might be difficult to find the right fit for your community. It’s important to make sure any potential providers understand the culture of your area and can work effectively with your specific patient populations. Working with a telepsychiatry vendor, like Iris Telehealth, can be beneficial through that process as they have in-depth knowledge and experience with identifying, interviewing, and matching providers who would be a good fit for your community and your organization.
Initially, your organization may also face challenges in locating adequate funding for your telepsychiatry program. However, there is no shortage of federal grants available to help bring any necessary resources or technology to your community — you just need to make sure you consider the time it could take to apply for and receive that grant funding.
Some good grant resources to keep an eye on include:
- Rural Health Information Hub: RHIhub keeps an active list of all funding opportunities for all U.S. states and territories. If your organization is located in a rural area, this will be a great resource for current and future grants.
- SAMHSA: SAMHSA keeps a comprehensive list of grants for the improvement of quality and availability of substance use and mental health treatment services.
- Grants.gov: Grants.gov is the largest repository of federal grants for healthcare organizations across the country.
Setting your telepsychiatry program up for success
Regardless of where your organization is located, there are certain steps you can take to help ensure the long-term success of your telepsychiatry program:
- Train and educate your staff: Training your staff on specific systems or processes you may need to implement for your telepsych program can seem daunting at first, but it’s an important step to ensure you have the buy-in from your team to launch a successful program. As you walk them through any changes that might come with your new program, remember there are many resources available to help train your staff on how to work with specific technologies. Start by reaching out to your local telehealth resource center to learn more.
- Work with a dedicated telepsychiatry partner: If the prospect of launching your program and staffing it with telepsychiatry providers seems overwhelming, it may be a good idea for your organization to reach out to a company like Iris, who can help you set up your program from the ground up.
- Educate yourself and your staff on how federal and state policies apply to you: It’s important to make sure your organization is aware of how billing and reimbursement policies affect your telepsychiatry program. And remember, there’s no shortage of evidence that patients like having access to telepsychiatry and telemental health services.
No matter what stage you’re in with your telepsych program, support is out there to help you build a program that provides life-saving access to behavioral health services for your community. If you’re looking for highly qualified, compassionate psychiatrists and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners with experience working in shortage areas, Iris Telehealth can help. Contact us for more information about building an effective telepsychiatry program.