Telemedicine: Less driving, more help


— Residents of rural Northwest Colorado who are dealing with severe mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia will soon find it a little easier to get the medicine they need.

Mental health centers in Walden, Rangely, Meeker, Craig and Steamboat Springs are now connected through a telemedicine program that allows psychiatrists, or doctors who can administer medicine, to see patients on the screen.

Within a few weeks, Grand Junction also will connect. All together, that means a pool of about half a dozen doctors who can see patients more frequently and with less driving.

"It's going to give us this opportunity to provide whatever psychiatric service the patient needs right there in their community," said Tom Gangel, division director of Colorado West Regional Mental Health.

The telepsychiatry equipment was purchased with a $61,600 grant from Caring for Colorado.

The technology puts a TV screen and video camera in the doctor's office, and also in a room at each connected mental health center, allowing the doctor and patient to converse in real time, Gangel said.

The equipment is gaining support across the country, and studies suggest it is as effective as in-person appointments. Patients are less likely to miss an appointment with telepsychiatry, and teenagers especially seem to have an easier time opening up, Gangel said.

For two pyschiatrists based in Steamboat, the technology will save six hours or more of driving time each week. That, in turn, gives them more time to take appointments.

One psychiatrist in Steamboat has tested the video link with a patient and is scheduled to use it with the same patient again.

Gangel just finished a grant request to the medicine division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for $142,000 worth of equipment that would connect the rest of the counties in Colorado's Midwestern and Central mental health divisions.

"Research shows that rural Colorado ... is really underserved by psychiatry," Gangel said. "This will give us the opportunity to provide the psychiatric services that communities of our size really need, but that remoteness makes (difficult)."

Making psychiatrists more available is a key in helping people with mental illnesses, which in many cases can be treated with medicine.

"Depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are treatable. You don't have to sit back and suffer," Gangel said. "This is one way to get that treatment to you faster and a little more frequently."

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

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