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Wednesday, 15 May 2019 16:20

A Rural School District Uses Telehealth to Access Mental Health Care

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Students in rural Dickinson, ND, will soon be able to use telehealth to meet with a psychiatrist hundreds of miles away. The virtual care platform augments the district's available counseling resources.



A rural North Dakota school district located hundreds of miles from the nearest psychiatrist will be using telehealth to improve student access to behavioral health services and support its on-site counselors.

The Dickinson Public School District, a nine-school network serving one of the fastest-growing small towns in the country, is partnering with the Dickinson-based Southwest District Health Unit to give students access via telemedicine to psychiatrists at the Center for Psychiatric Health, located in Grand Forks, roughly 370 miles away.

“School counselors are trained in certain realms, certain aspects, and there are times when we need more than their services, and I would hope that this would help provide some of that,” Marcus Lewton, principal of Dickinson Middle School, which will host a secure room for the connected care program this fall, told the Dickinson Press.

The virtual care program addresses an issue common to school districts both rural and urban. Many have counselors – in Dickinson they’re called support liaisons - and in some cases psychologists on site or readily available, but those counselors don’t have the clinical expertise of a psychiatrist, who can conduct medical-based treatments and prescribe specific medications.

But psychiatrists are few and far between, most often in urban centers, and they have waiting lists that are months long. A telehealth program can offer school districts an opportunity to get certain students in front of a psychiatrist a lot sooner and easier.

“It's not to take the place of any existing systems that are in place, so anybody that normally goes to a counselor, normally goes to (the nearby Badlands Human Service Center) or normally goes to their providers,” added Sherry Adams, executive officer of SWDHU. “It doesn't take the place of that. It's just adding an additional resource for the extra psychiatric health with actual psychiatrists.”

“We have individuals in Dickinson who can do counseling and therapy - this is not that,” she said. “This is actually the physician that makes the diagnosis, they help with the medication, so it's kind of that upper level one.”

School officials say the one-hour virtual sessions, held with parents in attendance, reduce the challenges faced by parents and students in taking time off from work and school and driving to Grand Forks or Fargo, roughly 290 miles away.

“Unfortunately, when you need those resources, it tends to cost a lot of money,” Chase Breitbach, one of the school's student support liaisons, told the local newspaper. “You start to try and be flexible with your schedule and that's challenging because you're working with three different employers or you're trying to find a way to fill your gas tank up and get you to get to and from Fargo once a week ... it becomes kind of burdensome.”

“The thing that I think is kind of cool about telehealth is it eliminates some of those barriers and maybe allows a little better access to those resources in Southwest North Dakota,” he added.


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