LUMBERTON — Southeastern Regional Medical Center will soon treat psychiatric patients via video as part of a statewide telepsychiatry program. The program is intended to bring psychiatric care to under-served rural areas and reduce the strain on the hospital’s emergency room, one of the busiest in the state.
The news came Thursday as North Carolina’s acting Health Director Dr. Robin Cummings, a county native who grew up in Pembroke, visited the medical center. He and other members of the Department of Health and Human Services’ leadership are traveling the state to assess the condition of mental health care in North Carolina.
Fifty-eight of 100 counties in North Carolina don’t have adequate psychiatric care, according to a the Department of Health and Human Services.
With the statewide telepsychiatry program, those struggling with mental illness and substance abuse can go to participating medical centers in their area and have a full consultation with a board-certified psychiatrist at East Carolina University’s Center for Telepsychiatry and E-Behavioral Health in Greenville.
Using high-definition cameras, doctors can talk to patients, “see the pupils dilate and constrict” and even “see the patient sweating,” said Cummings, who lives in Pinehurst. Hospital staff will be able to send a patient’s vitals and medical history to a psychiatrist over a secure network.
After two years, said Cummings, the goal is to have 60 facilities involved in the $4 million project, which is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Rural Health and Community Care.
The Department of Health and Human Services also hopes to cut down on unnecessary visits to the emergency room, which can be costly for both patients and hospitals.
Dave Richard, director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Mental Health Division, stressed that communities, local law enforcement and emergency responders should be better educated about psychiatric services available so that they will not automatically take a patient to an emergency room.
“That’s probably the only place they know to go,” he said.
Southeastern Regional Medical Center saw 70,000 Emergency Department visits in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to J.R. Clark, director of Emergency Services. Most visitors were mental health patients. The medical center is constrained by a 45-bed Emergency Department and a 26-bed inpatient psychiatric unit.
Currently, those who visit Southeastern Regional Medical Center’s emergency department, the fifth busiest in the state, would be referred to Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro for long-term care. Cherry Hospital serves 38 counties.
“It’s a numbers game … and they end up waiting with us,” Dr. John Reed, chief of Emergency Services at Southeastern Regional Medical Center, said.
Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City began its own telepsychiatry program in 2011 and has seen reductions in patients’ lengths of stay as well as involuntary commitments to the hospital.
The statewide program will roll out in January, so the exact date of the local launch is not yet known. In the interim, a similar program with a company called Specialists on Call will begin in December.
Later in the day, Cummings was a featured speaker at the 16th annual Red Ribbon luncheon in Pembroke, which was held by Palmer Prevention, a nonprofit the deals with substance abuse. Cummings said Robeson County has one of the highest rates of prescription drug abuse in North Carolina.