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Telehealth: the solution to staffing the Mental Health Center of North Iowa

By Bridgett Hauert –

mental_health-center-ni-2011Northern Iowa is considered an “under-served area” in terms of psychiatric care according to Andrew Eastwood, Executive Director of the Mental Health Center of North Iowa, located north of Lyons Toyota at 235 South Eisenhower in Mason City. Nation wide, there are just not enough providing psychiatric services to fill the needs of those seeking care and the numbers are worse for those specializing and caring for children. In rural or low populated areas the need is more difficult to fill as there are fewer psychiatrists, physicians assistants (PA) and advanced registered nurse practitioners (ARNP) available.

Since June, a lack of psychiatric staff for the Mason City Clinic has impacted their ability to fulfill their exclusive contract with the Mental Health Center of North Iowa to provide on-site psychiatric care. In order to keep up with the demand for services, Telehealth was instituted by the Mental Health Center of North Iowa to fill the growing need in the seven counties they provide care for. The last year has seen an increase from 55 to 73 weekly patient hours and need will continue to grow. Telehealth provides the Mental Health Center the ability is able to provide more service than before; there are now three psychiatric providers and ten therapists on-site. Eastwood forecasts that the need will continue to grow; after environmental stressors seem to diminish, there exists a “lag” from the time a traumatic event occurs, the loss of a job or a flood, and when an individual becomes aware that they need assistance and chooses to seek help. It can take years before survival mechanisms a person creates break down and no longer help a person cope with the triggering event and its fallout.

Patients visiting the Mental Health Center can expect an experience with a provider through Telehealth that is not much different than one carried out face to face. A nurse takes the patient’s vitals such as blood pressure and weight in one room and then walks the patient to a room with a HD television set with two chairs facing it. Nurse and client sit down and the nurse introduces the provider to him or her. Soon the nurse leaves the room and the client is able to discuss why they are there over a secure, high speed connection. One patient notes that “at first it is quite uncomfortable, but soon you forget you are on camera and that she is located in Arizona because the psychiatrist is so personable”. Once their conversation is over the patient is directed to get the nurse if a prescription for medication is needed to be written out.

Scott, a Telehealth physicians assistant states “at first I was a little skeptical to be honest, I was not sure how it would work”, the process does give him more paper work but the good nurses he works with through the Mental Health Center are thorough in cluing him in on the things the patients may hide or that he may miss during a conversation. Overall, the “patient-practitioner interaction is not that much different”.

As the contract with Mason City Clinic officially ends this September, Andrew Eastwood will be recruiting for on-site psychiatric practitioners. Telehealth is to be a “temporary, if not supplemental vehicle for patient care”. It has been successful in providing the Mental Health Center assistance to help those who have suffered a trauma, or traumas, cope with and deal with the day to day functions of life and have a safe and helpful place to retell their stories.

For more information about the services the Mental Health Center of North Iowa and their offices in surrounding areas, call 641.424.2075 or 1.800.700.IOWA (toll-free). You can also visit their website http://www.mhconi.org.

The Mental Health Center of North Iowa serves: Cerro Gordo, Floyd, Franklin, Hancock, Mitchell, Winnebago & Worth counties.

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