Lack of Access to Mental Health Care in Rural Areas
One in five Americans—over 43 million—suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. With less than half of the mental healthcare providers needed in the United States, many individuals go without care. Less than a quarter of mental healthcare providers are available in rural areas. Limited availability of care, coupled with accessibility issues in rural areas and the stigma of mental illness, create barriers to mental health services for individuals in need.
More than 85% of Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas (MHPSAs) are in rural areas. More than half of all counties in the US do not have even one mental healthcare provider—psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker. Individuals often wait months to be seen by a specialist, due to the lack of mental healthcare providers. Individuals have little choice but to wait until their scheduled appointment, even if their need is immediate.
With the shortage of providers and service sites in rural areas, it is often difficult for individuals in need of care to physically get to their appointments. Health clinics and practices can be an hour drive or longer, making attendance a challenge for people with jobs or children and those without a means of transportation. Regular visits with a healthcare provider become nearly impossible.
Stigma and Mental Illness
The stigma attached to mental illness may also discourage individuals from receiving needed care. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the negative perceptions around mental health disorders and receiving professional treatment and the lack of privacy in small communities exacerbates the problem.
How Telehealth Increases Access to Mental Healthcare
Telehealth can address the challenges to mental healthcare in rural communities through technological innovation. Telehealth is a healthcare delivery system that utilizes the internet and various specialized technologies to connect patients and providers. Telehealth opens opportunities to expand the care that modern-day practitioners can provide to their patients.
The shortage of providers in rural areas is due in part to the difficulty of recruiting providers to practice in these areas. However, a provider at a distant site can connect with a patient in a rural town via a telehealth platform and provide the needed care. Psychiatrists, nurse practitioners and licensed social workers can conduct consultations and provide therapy, counseling and medication management to their patients through these secure technologies.
Telehealth improves accessibility and privacy for the patient as well. Telehealth reduces travel time to providers who are miles away, eliminates stress caused by lack of transportation, and may encourage rural patients to seek treatment, avoiding stigmas within their community for certain kinds of care. Telehealth enhances care via technology and is an effective tool to provide care for those who may avoid seeking help in smaller communities due the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Improving Quality of Life
An individual’s mental state has a direct impact on his or her quality of life and is deeply intertwined with his or her success as a contributing member of society, as a family member and as a friend. Mental health and physical health are also inextricably linked; chronic physical conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, may be linked to mental illness. The trend toward holistic healthcare—an approach to care that considers the physical, psychological, social, economic and spiritual needs of the patient—has shown improvements in individuals’ overall health and is intended to help them lead a balanced and fulfilling life. Receiving mental healthcare is key to patients’ total care and wellness.
The Kim Foundation’s mission states that the organization “serves to bridge the gap in mental health services and further encourages innovation that will enhance programs, expand services, strengthen organizational systems and most importantly, transform lives.” Telehealth is an evolving, innovative tool in the healthcare field that continues to enhance care provision. The implementation of telehealth services across the nation bridges the gaps in mental healthcare outlined in the Kim Foundation’s mission statement, especially in rural communities.
About Encounter Telehealth
Encounter Telehealth provides behavioral healthcare services via telehealth to skilled nursing facilities and healthcare clinics throughout the Midwest. Encounter removes geographic barriers to connect patients and providers via technology. Their national network of providers consists of board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners. Encounter operates in Full Practice states which allow nurse practitioners to diagnose, treat and prescribe without physician supervision. Innovative technology and a strong workforce allow Encounter to remove barriers of distance to care and enhance care for patients in need. Encounter Telehealth is based in Omaha, Nebraska.
Written by Jennifer Amis, President & CEO, and Nora Barry, Healthcare Policy and Operations Intern, at Encounter Telehealth, LLC. Nora is also a Junior at Creighton University with a Major in Healthcare Administration.
National Institute of Mental Health, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml
Any Mental Illness (AMI) Among U.S. Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved March 01, 2017, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-mental-illness-ami-among-us-adults.shtml
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Rural Behavioral Health: Telehealth Challenges and Opportunities. (2016). In Brief, 9(2), fall 2016, 1-13. Retrieved March 1, 2017. http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA16-4989/SMA16-4989.pdf
Warren, J. C., & Smalley, K. B. (2014). Rural public health: best practices and preventive models. New York: Springer Publishing Company.