Psychiatric Help is a TV Screen Away

Psychiatrist Douglas Conte demonstrates how telepsychiatry works with a colleague in Escondido.

On one end is a psychiatrist.

On the other could be a person suffering from anxiety, depression, substance abuse, psychosis or a mood disorder.

They’re in separate areas of the county, yet can speak to and see each other through a secure video connection.

It’s called telepsychiatry and the County has been offering the service for nearly 10 years to increase access to psychiatric care for people across San Diego County, providing diagnosis, treatment and medication management. It consists of two-way, real time, interactive audio and video to provide psychiatric care, when participants are in different geographic locations.

“We’re making it easier for clients to access services,” said Dr. Douglas Conte, who provides psychiatric services at the North County Walk-In Assessment Center in Vista. “They really like it.”

The County’s telepsychiatry program started in 2008 to assist North County residents who were dependent on emergency rooms for crisis mental health services. The program began offering the services at the walk-in, urgent mental health clinic in Vista to reach people residing in northern and more remote areas of the county. A second walk-in clinic with telepsychiatry services also opened in Escondido. Both clinics and telepsychiatry services are operated and provided by Exodus Recovery, Inc., which has been offering psychiatric and chemical dependency treatment services to Southern California communities since 1989.

“The telepsychiatry program is a high-tech solution for people needing urgent mental health services but with limited transportation,” said Alfredo Aguirre, director of Behavioral Health Services for the County Health and Human Services Agency. “Telepsychiatry has been an effective way to deliver services to people in remote areas experiencing a mental health crisis.”

Exodus telepsychiatry services have expanded to not only reach North County residents but to provide services to 12 adult mental health sites and four children’s mental health clinics all over San Diego County. Telepsychiatry is used in these clinics as back-up coverage when a clinic has a shortage of in-person psychiatry services due to vacancies, provider absences, or when a clinic is over capacity.

This service allows more people to be seen, which decreases emergency room visits, prevents declines in mental health, and improves the safety and quality of life for the clients and the community.

Since the program began, more than 6,000 clients have received mental health services through the telepsychiatry program.

People receiving telepsychiatry services are prepared for the session by the clinician and prescriber who describe the process, demonstrate how the equipment works and answer any questions the client may have. The sessions last about 30 minutes but can be as long as an hour. People who not feel comfortable with the process are given the option to return to receive services in person.

Satisfaction surveys from people receiving telepsychiatry services show that 85 percent were satisfied with the session and expressed that it was equivalent to an in-person appointment.

“We are delivering services to people who would otherwise not get them,” said Deborah Ellis, a nurse practitioner who also provides telepsychiatry services at the Vista walk-in clinic. “These are people who really need help and that’s what we’re here for.”

José A. Álvarez is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact