Mental healthcare crisis leading to long wait times in the East

Mental healthcare crisis leading to long wait times in the East (Image 1)

The high demand of mental health patients and low supply of mental health providers are creating long wait times to be seen by psychiatrists across the East. It is estimated that one in four adults will encounter a mental health problem every year.

Average wait times to see a psychiatrist in the East can range from two to eight weeks, sometimes even longer. 

“There aren’t enough psychiatrist here in Eastern North Carolina, North Carolina, or in the nation for that matter,” said Sy Saeed, the chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Brody School of Medicine.

Jones, Pamlico, Hyde and Greene Counties have no psychiatrists at all. 

Those on state funded healthcare plans, like Medicaid and Medicare, have regulations dictating when they have to be seen. For a crisis, they have to be seen within two hours. For an urgent matter, within 48 hours, and a routine visit, within 14 days. However, if you are privately insured, those regulations aren’t there.

That has led some with mental health problems having no where else to turn to but emergency departments.

“An average time to place someone in a state hospital, for example, was 72 hours,” said Saeed. “An average time to place in a community hospital was about two days.”

This has led to beds and resources being occupied by mental health patients rather than those suffering from other serious problems like heart attacks. 

Telepsychiatry, a program developed at ECU, has tried to reduce that problem by meeting with patients virtually. It has been especially beneficial to hospitals in rural areas like Vidant Edgecombe.

“I think the psychiatric patients have always been a challenge in the fact that those patients sometimes are having to spend extra time in the emergency department,” said Dr. Barry Bunn, the Emergency Department Medical Director at Vidant Edgecombe. 

Vidant Edgecombe averages about 16 mental health patients each month. Last year, there were around 6,000 calls to the telepysch program across the state. This year, the program is on pace for 10,000 calls.

Bunn said by virtually meeting with mental health patient, it is freeing up resources at hospitals to reduce wait times for everyone.

“We’re trying to make sure that we have an average length of stay in the emergency department of less than three hours. We’re making sure that we can see all of our patients that come in and see a physician within 30 minutes,” Bunn said.

Every hospital in the East participates in the telepysch program.

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