Tele-psychiatry Program Eases Burden on South Carolina Emergency Rooms

Nearly 1 in 5 American adults struggle with a mental health condition but access to behavioral health services is limited throughout the United States and worldwide. People often end up in their local Emergency Room for help but they face long wait times to speak with a psychiatrist.  To combat this problem, many hospitals now use telehealth to provide tele-psychiatry consultations to patients in the emergency room. 


“Tele-psychiatry as far as providers is extremely important because we have a lack (of providers),” said Brittany Cole, a Registered Nurse and Nursing Manager at Spartanburg Medical Center. “We definitely need providers for mental health. It’s important to seek treatment and to find a provider because there’s not a stigma anymore.”


The Spartanburg Medical Center Emergency Department sees 95,000 visits per year. A significant percentage of those patients are behavioral health emergencies. Onsite psychiatrists are limited and their availability does not extend into the evenings and weekends. Cole said her team relies on additional psychiatrists from the South Carolina Department of Mental Health who offer consults via telehealth in real time. 


Dr. Brenda Ratliff, a psychiatrist with SCDMH, said the tele-psychiatry program uses a camera that can be zoomed in on a patient, panned or tilted in any direction to follow a patient who may get up and walk around the room. She said patients are more comfortable with telehealth in recent years because the COVID-19 pandemic exposed more people to the benefits of telemedicine. 


Patients benefit from tele-psychiatry, she said, because they receive timely consultations, start medications sooner, and get discharged from the Emergency Room earlier. 


“Hopefully we will be able to grow the tele-psychiatry program and be available to any hospital that doesn’t have a psychiatrist to help the Emergency Room physicians get better services to our patients as well as have the emergency room physicians feel more comfortable with what they’re doing,” said Dr. Ratliff.