“I get lots of calls from other states.”
Ed Spencer at the South Carolina Department of Mental Health says it is not uncommon for programs across the nation to seek advice on expanding their access to care, specifically in regards to telepsychiatry in rural areas.
“They look on the Internet, like we all do, and they find our program. They call and say, ‘you know South Carolina is a small state.’ They don’t say ‘poor.’ They say, ‘don’t you lack resources?’ We know what that means.”
The program is the Telepsychiatry program. In 2007, DMH received assistance from the Duke Endowment and the South Carolina Hospital Association to meet the need for providing remote psychiatric consultations.
Practitioners began providing services anywhere at anytime through video conferencing and other programs. Their reach and services make them one of the first statewide telehealth programs. Since then, the program has expanded. Spencer says it begins and continues with the support of other agencies and the need of South Carolina residents.
“That’s what I tell other states,” says Spencer.
“It begins at the community by organizing and by getting critical partners. I talk about collaboration at the community level: my agency, your agency, their agency. Our critical partners are the ones that have made this program work.”
Not only does collaboration make South Carolina programs work; it is what makes South Carolina different.
“Our collaboration makes us unique,” says Dr. James McElligott at the Medical University of South Carolina.
“Currently, in a lot of places, you have one network for one hospital, and one for the other. When we put out telehealth equipment, we put out equipment that can be used by everyone. Building a network that can be used by all in South Carolina makes us unique. The investment and direction to collaborate, to work together, has led us to do some things that allow things to move quicker.”
McElligott says there are more than 180 sites that are connected across South Carolina. These sites share equipment and expertise. The number of connections continues to grow.
Even in South Carolina politics, telehealth is bipartisan, says Oconee Senator Thomas Alexander.
“It’s really brought everybody together, probably like no issue that I’ve seen in the area of healthcare in modern years.”
Alexander says Oconee’s closest metropolitan area is Greenville, nearly 50 miles away. As a legislator in a rural area, Alexander saw the need for his constituents and others throughout the state; “[Telehealth] is a way for us to try to utilize our resources and help meet the needs of the people.”
In 2013, he worked with providers including McElligott and Spencer, to establish the South Carolina Telehealth Alliance. Since then, collaboration continues to be the driving force behind South Carolina’s telehealth initiatives.
“I’m very encouraged and very excited about where we’re going to see telemedicine go in the future across South Carolina, and that we, as citizens, will all be better served as a result of that collaboration,” says Alexander.
"South Carolina shines its best when we have people working together.”