Monday, June 29, 2020

Telehealth expansion for pandemic has made mental health care more accessible in some rural areas

Aggressive efforts to expand telehealth care in rural areas during the pandemic are bringing the unexpected side benefit of making mental health care more accessible in some areas, Raga Justin reports for the San Angelo Standard Times. Though Justin's story centers around Texas, the same thing is likely happening in other states.

"In April, Gov. Greg Abbott temporarily waived restrictions on telehealth, allowing mental health care providers and local mental health authorities to broadly expand services and collect reimbursement for online appointments more easily," Justin reports. "The state also implemented a mental health hotline in March that offers free over-the-phone support and provides resources and information to callers who need help."

Andy Keller, president and CEO of Texas-based Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, told Justin that "in some ways, people in rural Texas have better access to health care than they’d ever had before" and noted that expanded telehealth access has lifted barriers to accessing physicians in other parts of the state.

Telemedicine appointments at Texas Tech University's Psychiatry Department—a telemedicine pioneer—have been skyrocketing since the pandemic began, according to department chair Sarah Wakefield.

But lack of broadband access in rural areas has stymied further expansion of telemedicine. About 500,000 Texas households lack broadband access in Texas, and about 440,000 of them are in rural areas, Justin reports.

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