Long-distance therapy

A national shortage of psychiatrists makes it tough for many people with mental health disorders, especially those in more remote areas of the nation, to get the help they need.

To counter the problem locally, Diakon Family Life Services-Upper Susquehanna, has begun offering tele-psychiatry at its Williamsport location at 435 W. Fourth St., Williamsport.

“Tele-psychiatry uses technology to connect patients and their psychiatrist,” said Laurel Spencer, clinical director for Diakon Family Life Services’ outpatient mental health services. “It’s just like having a face-to-face meeting with the doctor, except the doctor is at another location. This

service is particularly important in rural areas, where children may face long waiting lists for psychiatric care.”

Wait times to see psychiatrists can take anywhere from three to six months.

Tele-psychiatry can be invaluable for people with more severe mental health conditions whose medication management is vital to their well-being, and who might otherwise require hospitalization.

Spencer explained how the appointment process works.

“After people check in with our receptionist, they are taken by their counselor to an office that includes a computer monitor, through which they will talk face-to-face with the doctor,” she said.

The counselor remains in the room to assist with the conversation and to make the visit comfortable for the client, she added.

Necessary prescriptions are faxed by the psychiatrist to Diakon staff members, who connect with pharmacies to get the medications to the client, Spencer said.

Diakon began offering the service in March one day a week for four hours. Plans are to soon expand the service to eight hours per week.

“Research has shown that people are finding they are just as comfortable using the technology as they are face to face,” Spencer said. “Other than the remote connection between provider and patient, we offer the same service as face-to-face services.”

Overall, tele-psychiatry has become a more common practice in areas where it’s needed.

Diakon received a $15,000 grant from the Williamsport-Lycoming Community Foundation of First Community Foundation Partnership of Pennsylvania to purchase and install the equipment necessary for the program.

Spencer said Lycoming County has a shortage of psychiatrists, particularly those with a pediatric specialty.

Part of the problem, she said, is recruiting psychiatrists to the area.

“Rural areas are hit harder. We certainly have a shortage in Lycoming County,” she said.