Mental Health Treatment by Video Growing

The Associated Press
Monday, October 9, 2006; 3:56 AM

DALLAS -- Psychiatrists, often in need and hard to find in rural areas, are increasingly turning to video to treat their far-flung patients, illustrating one of the latest growth areas of telemedicine.

Anthony Presciano said he probably wouldn't get treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder if he had to drive the 60 miles through heavy traffic to see his therapist in Dallas.

Instead, the 60-year-old Vietnam War veteran travels less than 15 miles from his north Texas home of Argyle to a suburban clinic in Denton where he "sees" his doctor on a video screen.

"Once the telemedicine session starts, it's no different than a face-to-face," said Dr. Umar Latif of the Dallas VA Medical Center, which has been offering psychiatric sessions over video for more than a year.

Video medical treatment increasingly is filling the gap in regions of the country where specialists are in short supply. And mental health appointments work especially well over video, enabling therapists to reach many patients who otherwise might not get help, experts say.

There are no figures on the number of doctors using telemedicine or telemental services, which can include appointments by video screen or telephone. But American Telemedicine Association spokesman Jonathan Linkous said the practice has been growing each year.

In Pennsylvania, the rural Central Greene School District has been using telepsychiatry since last fall to treat troubled students.

"Some of our students would travel long distances to come to the clinics," said superintendent Jerome Bartley. "We have a great shortage of any kind of psychiatric outlets for students."

In New Mexico, video hookups are used in the offices of primary care doctors to support interventions on alcohol or drug abuse by conferencing in drug treatment specialists, said Richard Sheola of ValueOptions, a company that offers telepsychiatry under government contracts in six states.

At the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, where telemedicine has been operating for years _ starting with state prison inmates _ about one-third of the program's 60,000 appointments each year are for mental health treatment.

And in rural Georgia, the state's largest health insurer, Blue Cross, is building a telemedicine network linking rural hospitals and clinics to teaching hospitals. Included in that are three telepsychiatry centers where doctors treat small-town patients by long distance.

"We saw the need when we surveyed rural sites. We asked, 'What do you need, as far as specialists?' Psychiatry was the No. 1 need that we found," said Blue Cross spokeswoman Cindy Sanders.

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