South Carolina telepsychiatry program saves $28M

A statewide telepsychiatry program launched five years ago in South Carolina has saved nearly $28 million and significantly improved access to psychiatrists within hospitals and otherwise enhanced quality of care.  

According to The Duke Endowment which contributed $3.7 million in start-up funding, began five years ago when South Carolina’s Department of Mental Health (DMH) and the South Carolina Hospital Association established a telepsychiatry network for state hospitals operating emergency departments (EDs).

That network resulted in an increase in the quality and timeliness of triage, assessment and initial treatment of patients; reduced the number of individuals and length of stay in EDs, and allowed hospitals to direct critical personnel and financial resources to other needs; thus, realizing financial savings for hospitals.

From 2010 to 2013, the average number of behavioral health patients receiving telepsychiatry consultations increased from 8.7 to 12.3 per day. Psychiatrists have performed about 19,700 video examinations and the program has reduced costs by about $1,400 per consult, or a total of nearly $28 million.

Moreover, wait times at state hospitals have decreased dramatically to six hours on average, according to July 2013 figures. In the past, when a behavioral health patient presented to the ED over the weekend, they could be required to stay two to three days before being assessed by a mental health professional, according to the state.

Also, the state saw a reduction in the cost of mental healthcare by decreased utilization of sheriff deputies, probate judges and designated examiners. “Given the decrease in wait times for receiving consultative services, the timely administration of medications and effective referrals of the behavioral health patients to other local agencies as well as the DMH outpatient clinic system, the use of deputies, judges and examiners becomes less and less frequent,” according to the state.

A boost in funding also appears to be advancing telepsychiatry for South Carolina’s northernly neighbor. The Duke Endowment recently approved an additional $1.5 million to support telepsychiatry services in rural North Carolina.