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Telemedicine network tries to speed kids' psychiatric care

Dr. Elizabeth McCabe 

Dr. Elizabeth McCabe 

Oklahoma City — About a year after Mercy Health System launched its child psychiatry telemedicine network, about 30 Oklahoma doctors have learned how to diagnose and treat the most common mental health conditions in young patients.

The program, which is part of Mercy Virtual, starts with a two-hour class on depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and “disruptive behavior disorders,” which involve unusual hostility or indifference to authority figures. Doctors who complete the class then have access to support from a centralized psychiatry team based in Missouri.

Dr. Elizabeth McCabe, a Mercy pediatrician in south Oklahoma City, said she got some training in mental health in medical school, but it helped to learn more and to have access to an expert. About half of pediatric visits include discussion of a behavior or mental health issue, she said.

Dr. Kyle John, a child psychiatrist who counsels primary care doctors through Mercy Virtual, said about 120 doctors are participating across the Mercy system. Typically, the psychiatric team responds to calls and emails for a second opinion, though on rare occasions, they directly talk to a child in crisis, he said.

“It's really meant as a support program for the primary care provider,” he said.

The idea is to “shorten the line” to see a child psychiatrist, John said. About two-thirds of counties in Oklahoma don't have any psychiatrists, and waits of six months or longer for an appointment with a child specialist aren't unusual, he said.

Even in a large metropolitan area, it's difficult to make a quick appointment with a child psychiatrist for medications, McCabe said. While she's familiar with the more common medications, it's helpful to be able to quickly consult with a specialist, avoiding the long wait for a referral, she said.

“It can be a waiting game sometimes,” she said. “I'm glad to be able to offer that service to my patients.”

A primary care provider can diagnose children with common mental health problems, refer them to counselors for talk therapy and prescribe medications, if needed, John said. That frees up the psychiatrists to focus on children with more complex needs, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, he said.

“Because of the shortage (of psychiatrists), primary care doctors are having to do more of the work,” he said.

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›