Canadian geese flying in formation against a northern Michigan sky.

Can Telehealth Help Close the Mental Health Care Gap in Rural Michigan?

The never-ending shorelines, sand dunes, forests and overall wildness make the northern parts of Michigan perhaps its most beautiful. But they’re also the most isolated and have the highest rates of suicide in the state.

A big part of the problem is finding care, public health professionals tell us. Last June, Bridge Magazine wrote about Upper Peninsula mother Katie Sinclair driving nearly 250 miles to reach mental health care for her 10-year-old son, Jacob, and then searching for follow-up care. Meanwhile, Jacob suffered from depression, panic attacks and violent outbursts.

Behavioral health professionals working in rural parts of the U.S. say they’re unable to meet the mental health needs of their communities. Rural counties often can’t pay competitive wages or provide a lot of professional development opportunities. This makes it hard to retain and recruit qualified workers.

“Substance abuse, depression, suicide – these are huge issues in all areas of the state but they’re worse the farther north you go,” said Ruthanne Sudderth, senior vice president, Public Affairs and Communications with the Michigan Health & Hospital Association and an Upper Peninsula native. “These areas don’t have enough trained professionals to help those in need.”

There’s no denying this is dismal news. But telehealth, the digital health care tool that connects from a distance, may be able to help.

Care for those hard-to-reach places

Telehealth essentially lets people connect face-to-face with doctors, nurses and other health care professionals through a phone, tablet or computer. So people can have an online visit with a doctor to address a sore throat or sinus infection – or when they’re struggling with anxiety or depression.

“In rural areas, telehealth can connect patients to providers more quickly and conveniently,” said Kristyn Gregory, a psychiatrist and the medical director of behavioral health at Blue Care Network.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found telehealth to be effective for treating depression, substance use disorder and anxiety – all common risk factors for suicide. This is a key find for remote areas struggling to reach residents in need and lower climbing suicide rates.

How it helps

Telehealth acts as a solution for a number of challenges that are related to mental health care. They include:

  • Eliminating long drives to meet with psychiatrists and counselors.
  • Receiving immediate attention if having a mental health crisis. Immediate care can also curb a condition before it worsens.
  • More convenient follow-up care, which is key to reducing risk in those individuals already diagnosed with a mental health condition.
  • The comfort and privacy of being at home.

The CDC listed the stigma surrounding mental health as a prime reason for high and rising suicide rates. In some cases, online visits can provide the discretion and confidentiality some people need to seek treatment.

The trouble with telehealth

Despite its benefits, online health care also comes with some baggage.

“There are a lot of hoops to jump through when it comes to telehealth,” Sudderth said.

Hurdles include regulatory requirements – think privacy, security and licensing laws. Who’s going to pay for the service is also a big question mark. Then there’s common tech challenges such as proper hardware, having reliable and secure internet connections and enough bandwidth.

Despite the potential problems, Sudderth said there’s indeed a place for virtual care in remote areas.

“It’s not a cure-all but telehealth can definitely fill a gap,” she said.

Catching on

Rural regions across the country and in Michigan are trying telehealth out and getting positive results. In 2016, for instance, Grand Rapids-based Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services received federal funds to expand telehealth services to underserved people in the northern Lower Peninsula.

As telehealth becomes easier to use and afford, health care systems and plans are indeed using it more. In the U.S., 76% of hospitals connect patients to practitioners through virtual technology. Both Medicaid and Medicare have some form of telehealth coverage and are expanding that coverage in different areas.

Health plan companies are embracing the technology as well. If you’re a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan or Blue Care Network member, you can use Blue Cross Online VisitsSM to schedule virtual appointments with psychiatrists and licensed therapists. You can also chat online with a doctor about minor illnesses anytime, day or night.

While not a panacea, telehealth is shaping up to be a significant health care tool, one that can also help combat rising suicide rates in both urban and rural areas.

If you or someone you know is displaying any of the warning signs of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’ve lost a loved one to suicide, there are a variety of resources available to help you as well.

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