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Mental Health Care Just a Call Away

Kaiser Permanente breaks new ground in telehealth with its Connect 2 Care Telepsychiatry Program, co-designed by Kaiser Permanente therapists. Pictured, Natalie Breen, LCSW, an Initial Assessment Coordinator in the Connect 2 Care Telepsychiatry Center.

When it comes to mental health issues, sometimes the biggest hurdle is the first one — asking for help.

And when issues such as depression and panic disorders are involved, the resolve required to schedule an appointment in advance, arrive at the designated time and place, and speak with a caregiver face-to-face with sensitive personal information may seem insurmountable.

“We understand that it takes a lot of courage for a patient to ask for help for mental health issues,” said Shellie Kahane, MD, MPH, chief of Mental Health and Addiction at Kaiser Permanente Antioch and associate chair of chiefs for Regional Mental Health. “With our new Connect 2 Care Telepsychiatry Program, our members are now able to call to speak with a therapist and start treatment the same day or the next day.”

Co-Designed by Therapists for Tangible Results

The Connect 2 Care program is rooted in a design team of therapists from throughout Kaiser Permanente Northern California who worked with their union, NUHW, and mental health managers and leaders to ensure patient and staff needs would be reflected in the design — from essential training to the best way to provide follow-up services. Therapists and managers will continue to provide ongoing feedback to influence and improve Connect 2 Care tools and processes.

The program went live in June of this year, and the Connect 2 Care Telepsychiatry Center is now serving 10 medical centers across Northern California with a staff of 18 licensed psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and clinical social workers. The plan to roll out Connect 2 Care to the rest of the region is slated for 2019.

To receive services through Connect 2 Care, members call into their local mental health or psychiatry departments. Non-urgent phone or video appointments are then booked with the Connect 2 Care Telepsychiatry Center.

The dedicated licensed therapists at the Connect 2 Care center next provide initial assessment appointments via telephone or video, depending on the member’s preference, offering early and comprehensive access to help.

“The program provides accelerated treatment at the right place and time, improving patient and staff experience, outcomes, and overall efficiency,” said Dr. Kahane. “We are offering a welcoming and simplified process for our members to access mental health care; providing a prompt assessment by initial assessment coordinators who work to connect patients to care and services.”

“We have completed more than 4,000 initial assessments via telephone or video since we went live,” added Carrie Graham Lee, LCSW, MPH, Connect 2 Care director.

Health Care Without Walls

Telehealth allows people to connect to caregivers electronically — via phone, mobile device, or computer — anytime, anywhere. By providing appropriate medical consultations, prescriptions, and referrals electronically, telehealth can help to circumvent issues of travel and scheduling for members, often contributing to shorter turnarounds for care. And when care is delivered sooner, it can result in fewer visits and procedures, shorter hospital stays, healthier outcomes, and lower health care costs.

Kaiser Permanente members in Northern California have had access to remote health care for years, starting with the availability of phone consults with nurses and physicians at the Northern California Appointment and Advice Call Center. Virtual visits, now encompassing phone, online, and video, outnumbered in-person office visits for the first time in 2015 and have continued to rise. Members get the same high-quality care they’d get in person — care that’s covered by their plans and captured in their electronic health records.

The extension of telehealth to telepsychiatry services delivered through Connect 2 Care has been welcomed. Callers engage with therapists on a deep level, but from the privacy and comfort of their own homes, which they say adds a sense of safety.

One grateful patient reported her relief at being able to schedule and attend her initial mental health appointment by phone, saying, “I am shaking right now. You don’t know how many times I cancelled this appointment.”

“I recognize that a lot of the time I am the first person to really hear their story,” said Audra Tamulaitis, LCSW. She is one of Kaiser Permanente’s initial assessment coordinators, who are the first point of contact for patients. “People get emotional with us. They cry; they share things they have never told another living soul. It’s powerful stuff. I am very fortunate to be the recipient of their stories.”


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