How Virtual Behavioral Health Can Serve as a Long-Term Solution for Shortage Areas

How Virtual Behavioral Health Can Serve as a Long-Term Solution for Shortage Areas

In many rural areas across the U.S., and even in a lot of urban areas, there’s a significant 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.

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, virtual behavioral health services can go a long way toward filling those care gaps.

In this piece, we’ll break down how telehealth can benefit shortage areas across the country, what challenges your healthcare organization might face in implementing virtual behavioral health services, 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.

Virtual behavioral health can provide critical behavioral health support to shortage areas

Shortage areas or HPSAs may be a particularly good fit for virtual behavioral health services programs because they are disproportionately affected by the national psychiatrist shortage.

Dr. Tracy Mullare, Medical Director of Outpatient Services, Iris Telehealth

These challenges [of the provider shortage] have affected children across the board, and those in rural areas have been particularly affected. Given this population’s proximity to mental health resources and other unique barriers like transportation and economic hardship, getting behavioral health support isn’t always possible.

Healthcare organizations in HSPAs are often unable to have an in-person provider on staff for their care setting, but through telehealth, they can access quality providers from across the country. Without utilizing virtual behavioral health services, organizations will often find themselves with long wait times — or without care entirely.

Having access to clinicians all over the country who can provide excellent care quickly and conveniently is a significant benefit for these organizations.

The American Psychiatric Association

Telepsychiatry’s evidence base – including outreach to rural and remote areas – is substantial in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and now in many war-torn parts of the world. Care to these underserved patients and communities has been one of the best successes of telemedicine. Outcomes have been positive in terms of satisfaction, validity/reliability, and clinical care relative to in-person care.

Virtual behavioral health 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 telehealth 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 behavioral healthcare for LGBTQIA+ patients or other specific patient populations. It can be hugely beneficial to have access to someone who is an expert in that area.

Through telehealth, your organization can access those specialties and fill gaps you can’t fill through your local provider network.

Challenges and considerations for implementing telehealth programs in HPSAs

Whenever your organization begins the process of searching for a virtual behavioral health 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.

Dr. Kavita Vasu, Iris Telehealth Provider

For underserved communities, they may have waited months for a specialty provider or had to travel somewhere else. Telepsychiatry bridges that gap, where they can see a specialist sooner and don’t have to travel as much. It’s nice that people in those communities can be served through telepsychiatry.

Working with a telehealth 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.
  • is the largest repository of federal grants for healthcare organizations across the country.

Setting your telehealth 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:

  1. Train and educate your staff: Training your staff on specific systems or processes you may need to implement for your telehealth 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.
  2. Work with a dedicated telehealth 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.
  3. 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 telehealth services.

No matter what stage you’re in with your telehealth 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 behavioral health clinicians with experience working in shortage areas, Iris Telehealth can help. Contact us for more information about building an effective telehealth program.

We want to hear from you. Seriously.

Whether you are a health organization looking to expand your telepsychiatry services or a prospective clinician who wants to join the team, we’d love to talk!