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Telehealth Targets a Niche in Mental Health Care for Urban Youths

A New Jersey program is using telehealth to connect pediatricians with psychiatrists, addiction counselors and other experts in an effort to improve access to care for urban youths with behavioral health issues.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Pediatricians in New Jersey are using telehealth to connect with mental health experts in a new program designed to improve access to care for urban youths.

Armed with a $555,555 grant from the New Jersey department of Children and Families, Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care (UBHC) and New Jersey Medical School are offering online and phone-based consults to Essex County pediatricians through the Collaborative Behavioral Health Care Project – Essex Hub.

The program is expected to serve roughly 60 pediatricians and 100 staff in 30 primary care practices around the county, offering both phone-based and online consults as well as training in behavioral health screening and assessment techniques.

“If we can increase pediatricians’ capacity to identify and treat their patients’ emotional and behavioral challenges, it would fill a need for many families who are not getting services,” Evelyn Orozco, the program’s director, said in a news release provided by Rutgers. “In a perfect world, you would have a psychiatrist who works at every pediatric office. That’s not realistic, but this model comes close.”

The program builds on two trends expected to drive telehealth and telemedicine this year: the growth of telemental health services to address provider shortages, and a new emphasis placed an access issues in urban settings, where the challenges of distance and travel are replaced by traffic and specialist availability.

Access to child and adolescent psychiatrists is even more challenging. Some estimates have said the field will be will be only 70 percent filled in just two years.

“The lack of psychiatrists in this specialty is staggering,” Orozco said. “We cannot meet this tremendous need, so we have to shift how we are thinking and get creative.”

Telehealth and telemedicine advocates say a digital health platform could help ease some of those problems. Recognizing that urgency, the American Telemedicine Association last year unveiled practice standards for telemedicine in pediatric and adolescent telemental health.

“As the growing need for child- and adolescent-trained behavioral health providers will not be met in the foreseeable future, telemental health offers an effective way to increase access and improve quality of behavioral/mental healthcare,” Kathleen M. Myers, MD, MPH, MS, FAACAP, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington and director of telemental health at Seattle Children's Hospital, said when the standards were unveiled.

Rutgers officials estimate that one in five youths has a diagnosable mental disorder, while one of every 10 has a mental health challenge that impairs their ability to function. Yet only three of 10 are getting the healthcare services they need.

“Urban youth are at a higher risk for exposure to trauma, which can result in emotional and behavioral symptoms that can be easily misdiagnosed,” Orozco added. “Early treatment is essential in preventing disorders from becoming more chronic and debilitating.”

The telehealth platform offers pediatricians access to psychiatrists, alcohol and drug counselors, social workers and case managers, as well as monthly training sessions on the use of culturally sensitive screenings to identify behavioral health issues, substance abuse and trauma. In cases where stronger intervention is needed, UBHC arranges in-person care and follow-up.

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