The massive shortage of mental health professionals does not appear to have an end in sight. According to results from a recent National Council for Behavioral Health report discussed in a LancasterOnline article, the nation is currently 6.4 percent short of the psychiatrists it needs, and that the shortfall is projected to grow to 12 percent by 2025. And, although rural communities are even more likely to go without access to care, the issue is universal with 77 percent of counties nationwide experiencing a severe shortage of behavioral health professionals.

Like any complex problem, implementing a sustainable solution is going to take time, creativity and resources. According to the NCBH analysis, the answer is multifold, and includes “reforming payment models, increasing the emphasis on team-based care, and reducing barriers to video-based services known as telepsychiatry.”

The key challenge in realizing the NCBH’s proposed solution is that effectively changing the payment model hinges on results of ongoing healthcare reform efforts. Unfortunately, there is a noticeable lack of agreement in how specifically to reform such a comprehensive system, and as a result, widespread relief could be a long ways away at best.

Recognizing Opportunities

Fortunately, transitioning towards more team-based, collaborative-care model as well as the broader acceptance of telepsychiatry – or telemental health – each face far fewer obstacles, and could yield much quicker results.

The good news – those within the profession are open to exploring telepsychiatry and telemental health. South Carolina’s Department of Mental Health is a prime example. They initially embraced telepsychiatry as a means of eliminating the backup common in emergency departments “where patients may languish for two or three days before a mental professional is able to give them a consult.” The results have been quite promising with cost savings of over $3,000 per consultation as well as significant reductions in the amount of time patients remain in the hospital.

The same video conferencing tools used to enable telepsychiatry could present an opportunity to boost team-based care as well. After all, when healthcare professionals have access to video conferencing, it empowers diverse, distributed teams to work in concert with one another, leveraging one another’s strengths and with the right tools have secure HIPAA compliant discussions to ensure that treatment remains on-track.

Embracing Environmental Benefits

Beyond alleviating some of the pains associated with the growing shortage, telepsychiatry has provided mental health providers with other meaningful benefits as well. For instance, as recently discussed in this Mental Health Intelligence article, leveraging video conferencing gives therapists an entrance into the patient’s world that otherwise takes significant time to navigate.

Specifically, “an online platform offers psychiatrists a more complete window into a patient’s world, giving the clinician a chance to see what the patient is going through at home.” For example, the article spotlights a case in which a psychiatrist had numerous in-office sessions with a patient who often talked about a cluttered home environment. However, it took six sessions before the psychiatrist realized that the patient was a hoarder.

By leveraging video conferencing, it’s possible for providers to accurately visualize the patient’s daily environment, which can effectively streamline the treatment process and enable quickly getting to the heart of issues impeding patient progress.

Providing employees with access to telepsychiatrists could prove useful within the business environment as well, especially as more organizations understand the role that mental health support plays in building and nurturing a productive work environment.

In this Workplace Insights article, absence management expert Adrian Lewis from Activ Absence notes that employers should actively look to improve support at work for anyone at risk for stress. “Whilst employers can work on creating a more open culture where employees realize they will be supported and not judged if they disclose a mental illness, it’s also important to be proactive.  Not everyone will even recognize the symptoms in themselves.”

Bottom line: While there’s no silver bullet to solving the ongoing issue, empowering professionals with the right tools could put the industry on the right track – and get patients the care they need.