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ARTICLE Telepsychiatry

OptumHealth is exploring how to use telemedicine to deliver behavioral health services at a distance in real time, which allows doctors to observe a patient's immediate reactions like facial expressions and body language. Real time communication is critical for building patient trust and strong doctor-patient relationships.


Telemedicine is highly efficient, but may also have other advantages. For example, some patients have reported that that virtual visits can reduce the anxiety of office visits. They find that it's easier to talk via a screen, especially with issues like anxiety disorders.1


The need is great As many as 50 percent of children in the U.S. who have certain mental disorders are not being treated by a psychiatrist or other mental-health professional.1 The reasons vary, but we know that parents in medically underserved rural areas may not be able to take time away from work or cope with the long travel times.


One of our pilot projects is set in a school in a rural Mississippi county where the closest behavioral health practitioner is more than 50 miles away. Wait times for appointments can be 5-6 weeks. While formal evaluations are still underway we anticipate improvements like:


  • Reduced inpatient utilization
  • Fewer emergency room visits
  • Improved medication compliance
  • Lower school absenteeism

Telepsychiatry is an innovative use of technology that allows us to extend traditional health care into people's homes.


Status: Pilot programs in nine markets: CA, HI, MN, MS, NM, NY, TN, TX and WI. After evaluation we intend to broadly introduce the program by 2012.


1. Time, March 22, 2010