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‘Telepsychiatry’ speeds up hospital release times

WASHINGTON – When emergency room patients are deemed “a danger to themselves or others,” every state requires hospitals to hold them until a psychiatrist conducts an evaluation to decide whether it is safe to let them leave. In rural hospitals, it can take days for a psychiatrist to show up and perform the exam.

Five years ago, rural hospitals in South Carolina illustrated the problem. On a typical morning, more than 60 people were waiting in the state’s emergency rooms for psychiatric exams so they could be discharged or admitted.

Today, the scene is different, thanks to a “telepsychiatry” program that allows psychiatrists to examine patients through videoconferencing, reducing the average wait time from four days to less than 10 hours. In 2010, North Carolina began rolling out a similar program, and a dozen other states, including Alabama, Kentucky and Wisconsin, plan to follow suit.

According to a University of South Carolina School of Medicine study, the program has reduced the frequency of hospital readmissions and involuntary commitments. It has also improved compliance with follow-up treatments, and patient participation in drug and alcohol rehabilitation has doubled. It has reduced costs by about $1,400 per consult, or a total of nearly $28 million.