Telemedicine Closes Mental Health Treatment Gap For Rural Patients

By Kelly Burch 09/12/19

“There’s just not enough mental health coverage across the state, but the rural areas are particularly hit hard,” said one doctor.

patient using telemedicine for doctor's visit
ID 137028483 © Piotr Adamowicz |

People living in rural areas face challenges that can take a toll on their mental health, including low wages, limited job opportunities and a lack of social capital. All of that is compounded by the fact that it can be harder to access mental health care in rural America. 

From Months To Days

Now, telemedicine is helping to close the gap in treatments available in rural areas. At Meridian Health Services in Indiana, integrating telemedicine has reduced the wait time for new patient visits with a psychologist from months to days, according to NPR

That makes a big difference for patient outcomes, said Meridian's chief medical officer Dr. Sarfraz Khan. 

“In my opinion, it's lifesaving," he said. Meridian was having trouble delivering mental health services because the organization couldn’t find doctors who were willing to work in rural areas. 

"There was a time when we were seriously considering: Would it be viable for us to provide psychiatric services because nobody would like to come to small towns?” Khan said. 

Now, doctors don’t need to come to small towns to work. They work out of a central location in Indianapolis. Patients, meanwhile, visit rural clinics for their appointments. There, a nurse takes their vitals and sets them up with a two-way computer screen, where they teleconference with a doctor from the city. 

Patients Share Their Experiences

Some patients might balk at the idea of receiving health care through a screen, but a Meridian patient named Mariah said that telemedicine actually helps her be more honest with her providers. 

"It's easier because they're not there, so I feel like I can tell more, and speak more and truly just be fully real. If they're sitting right there, I might not want to say everything or say as much,” she said after finishing her first telemedicine appointment. 

In Texas’s DeWitt County there are no practicing psychiatrists. 

“We kept looking at what our needs were (in DeWitt County), and we did not have adequate access to mental health care,” Lynn Falcone, CEO of Cuero Health, told the Victoria Advocate

Falcone knew that she was unlikely to be able to find a psychiatrist to come practice in the area, so she reached out to Access Physicians, a group that provides telemedicine services. Now, patients at Cuero Regional Hospital can have telemedicine appointments with psychiatrists. 

Dr. Chris Gallagher, CEO of Access Physicians, said he is seeing more and more rural hospitals turning to telemedicine, especially for mental health services. 

“Psychiatry is probably the most in-demand specialty,” he said. “There’s just not enough mental health coverage across the state, but the rural areas are particularly hit hard.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.