West Virginia University doctors are offering mental health services to rural counties via a computer screen.
It's not a scene out of "The Jetsons," but it's close.
WVU Healthcare began offering telepsychiatry services in 2009, and it has since expanded to 27 clinics in 12 counties.
With a Web camera and a secure privacy-compliant computer server at a nearby facility, the WVU caregivers provide mental health treatment to adult, adolescent and child patients without the patients having to leave their hometown in many cases. Addiction-related services also include treatment for pregnant mothers.
Dr. Kari Law, director of telepsychiatry at WVU, said the services are needed for two reasons: Many West Virginians live in rural areas where services aren't offered, and services in other areas are overwhelmed with months-long waiting periods.
"It started in Roane County to provide services to adults in that area to prevent them from having to travel so far to receive care," she said. "Since that time, we've grown extensively with the hope that we can better serve some of the more rural areas of the state."
Since its inception, the program has serviced about 11,000 patients. About 4,000 of those were seen in the last six months.
Dr. Dilip Chandran began working with telepsychiatry services about five years ago when he didn't want to drive the long commute in rural West Virginia during the winter.
"I started the tele-health thing during December and January for follow-ups with people I had as patients in Elkins," he said. "I would see them live during all the other times of the year. But I had been working really hard to take off time, but I just couldn't keep doing that with all the patients. So this was an option."
Chandran has now been at WVU since July 1 and is still able to see a lot of the patients he has known for years.
"The big difference is that you're not in the room, so there is that little depersonalization in that sense initially compared to if you're in the room," he said. "Once people get to know you, they're very comfortable.
"Kids embrace the technology, so they're really big fans. Kids may be afraid in person; there's worry in the back of every child's mind, but through the computer, they can be very animated and make faces on the TV."
Law said WVU partners with a mental health center at the individual sites, which have a certified addiction counselor or a behavioral health nurse on site, and patients connect to a psychiatrist through a webcam and secure Internet-based software.
The psychiatrist is based out of Chestnut Ridge Center in Morgantown and sees patients via the Internet at a regularly scheduled time each week.