During Sherrie Williams' time in private practice as a social worker in Georgia, there was such a shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists that many children she saw who had more severe problems or problems that may have required medication could not access needed treatment.
There were a number of reasons: "First, there aren't many psychiatrists who specialize in children and adolescents," she said, noting that waiting lists can be six to eight months long. Specialists tend to cluster in urban areas, while travel from rural areas of the state--sometimes requiring an overnight stay--can prove near impossible for many working parents. And, among those fortunate enough to schedule an initial consultation, many could not manage the monthly time and expense needed for ongoing treatment, said Williams, who is telehealth liaison and school-based tele-health specialist for the Georgia Partnership for TeleHealth.
"I could provide the therapy, but not the psychiatry," she said. "Some children need a higher level of care."
When Williams started working in the Ware County public school system, she continued to seek a better solution. With the help of grants, Williams found one, introducing a school-based health clinic with a telemedicine capability. "I was able to call the Georgia Partnership for TeleHealth and they were able to locate a psychiatrist," she said. No longer did it matter that the psychiatrist was located in the Atlanta area, which was a 41/2-hour drive from the county, in the extreme southeast corner of the state.
"Now the parents only have to come to the school," Williams said.
Parents who are not able to take their children to far-away appointments on a monthly basis, or even for an initial evaluation, are not neglectful, according to Williams. "One single morn was only allowed so many days off per year, or she would lose her job," she said. Just one visit with the Atlanta psychiatrist would mean at least two days away from work, hours behind the wheel, plus the cost of an overnight hotel stay--a proposition that was out-of-reach for the mom and for many working people like her. A sampling of parents participating in the telemedicine program found that, for each telemedicine doctor visit, each is saving 124 miles of driving--and significant lost time at work, Williams reported.
Lynn Rivers, nurse coordinator with the Ware County school district, says the program is making psychiatry available to children who otherwise just would not get it, and that involving the school is an important part of the process. "It's helpful for stair to have a better understanding" of the child, she said. And she agreed that the most important part--helping parents connect with a psychiatrist without having to make the overnight trips to Atlanta--is key. "We do have a child psychiatrist locally, but in more severe cases of autism, we would want them to connect with a specialist," she said.
"There aren't enough child and adolescent psychiatrists to fill the need--their caseloads are already full," Williams said. "We are looking outside of Georgia to contract with psychiatrists who are licensed in the state."
Bringing telemedicine to the school resulted in a cost savings for the small (13-bed) local hospital, said Williams. The year after telemedicine was instituted, there was a 27% decrease in the number of children showing up at the emergency room, resulting in a $354,000 savings to state Medicaid (most of the patients in the area are covered by Medicaid). While not all of these visits were for mental health problems, some of the most difficult and costly ER cases involve children having suicidal thoughts or making suicide attempts.
The reach of the telehealth care relationship extends beyond school hours, too. "If a child becomes out of control during the evening hours, parents often don't …