A new UW Medicine Telehealth program for mental health and addictions care has had an immediate positive impact in remote, underserved Washington state.

Launched in July, the free teleconference links community providers with UW Medicine psychiatrists. Forty-five people from nine counties (King, Clallam, Jefferson, Whatcom, Spokane, Okanogan, Snohomish, San Juan and Skagit) participated in the program in its first month.

“It’s a unique opportunity,” said Randy Polidan, a counselor and behavioral health director at Unity Care NW in Bellingham. “The direct access to UW psychiatrists is incredible. I don’t think there is anything out there that’s similar in our state. I don’t think there could be.”

The weekly series provides 20 minutes of teaching on a specific topic followed by two or three case presentations from community providers, who receive feedback and recommendations from UW Medicine psychiatrists.

The provider-to-provider telehealth model has similarly connected remote caregivers with UW Medicine specialists in pain-management and HIV care.

A key focus of the new program is to help providers who care for people with addictions.

“Washington has a serious prescription-opioid abuse problem that has emerged as a major public health issue,” said Dr. Mark Duncan, a University of Washington acting assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “The burden often falls on providers in rural areas to care for addicted patients, but sometimes they need help, especially when serious psychiatric disorders and conditions aggravate the substance abuse.”

Duncan co-leads the program with Dr. Rick Ries, a UW professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
Howard Welsh, a nurse practitioner at Forks Community Hospital, serves a community in which many members struggle with alcoholism and abuse illicit and prescription drugs. He described a backdrop of violence, racism, socioeconomic disparity, poverty and homelessness – which give rise to a spectrum of mental disorders.

“The [telehealth] program gives me guidance and second opinions for all the types of mental and behavioral health challenges that I see,” Welsh said. “I can present a case study to the UW Medicine psychiatrists, get their feedback, and quickly learn what to do. What I learn in one case study affects my prescribing decisions for other patients. Without the program, I simply would not have access to that kind of expertise.”

The new series is appropriate for physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and mental health professionals. It aligns with UW Medicine’s other efforts to train healthcare providers in evidence-based, integrated behavioral healthcare.

“Bellingham is ripe for a community approach to integrated healthcare,” Polidan said. “The program is helping me learn how to do good behavioral healthcare at a primary care clinic. I’m learning what an integrated model focused on wellness looks like.”