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Tele-medicine partnership widens mental health care access in Montana

Posted at 8:17 PM, May 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-17 09:55:33-04

BILLINGS - As Montanans continue to rebound from COVID-19, Rimrock mental health and addiction clinic in Billings has widened its reach through tele-medicine, opening access to care for anyone with an internet connection in urban and rural areas of the state.

Rimrock has shifted a majority of it's in-person and group therapy sessions to an online or tele-medicine format since the pandemic. Chief Nursing Officer Christi Beals said people who would usually walk into the clinic now check in with professionals on their smartphones, tablets or computers.

“At first we saw a decline in patients, then all of a sudden we saw way more patients become engaged because we were meeting them where they were at. They were comfortable, but they also identified that they needed these services," Beals said.

After the initial learning curve for both patients and providers, Beals said the transition to primarily offer tele-medicine was positive. Now, with help of a newly formed partnership with the Eastern Montana Community Mental Health Center , more people have access to care.

Spread across 17 counties, Eastern Montana Community Mental Health Center can serve as a connection to local care for residents of rural communities.

"It gives accessibility to clients who maybe normally wouldn’t have been allowed that level of care that they really needed,” Beals said.

Beals said local professionals can then make referrals to Rimrock for further medication management and inpatient treatment if necessary.

“We saw our first patient last week. The goal is to keep those clients in their home communities in those 17 counties on the eastern part of the state, but to again be able to provide the medication management or psychiatric services that they normally wouldn’t have,” Beals said.

051620 EASTERN MT MENTAL HEALTH CENTER.PNG<div class="Figure-credit" itemprop="author">Eastern Montana Community Mental Health Center
Montana counties with Eastern Montana Community Mental Health Center locations.

Getting connected to an appointment is as easy as reading an email. Beals said people would schedule an appointment time and click on a secure link to visit privately with a professional.

"Their counselor is in their office like they normally would be. And that person can be connected from their tablet, computer or phone. They can have that face-to-face interaction, but it’s in this very private environment where they can have this one-on-one time with somebody," Beals said.

People who need inpatient care would still come to the clinic, Beals said. But the advantage of tele-health is people can have support when they go back home, as long as there's an internet connection.

“If they needed in-patient care, we would still have them come here for that level of care. But once they step down to outpatient services, we can continue to provide that in their home community. What normally didn’t exist is now a possibility for them," Beals said.

In the time of the COVID-19 pandemic with rapid changes to public policy and health guidance, Beals said there's been more people suffering depression and anxiety.

"I think that anxiety and depression are very serious right now because everything is changing around us. Everything that we knew to be our normal is no longer the same, and we don’t know what that new normal is going to look like," Beals said.

Reaching out for help is the important first step to overcoming mental health and addiction problems, Beals said. If someone doesn't know the type of help they need, Beals said Rimrock will try to connect people with the right services.

“If we can get you into a provider in your local community, we will do that. If not, we will talk to you about options. Don’t be afraid to reach out. These are challenging times and we’re being challenged with situations that we’ve never seen before," Beals said.

Patients have seen success in their treatment with the ability to effectively take the clinic back home with them, Beals said.

"We’ve gotten great feedback from clients who’ve said ‘I would have just been done. I probably would have just gone back to work. I wouldn’t have had those additional resources that I now have.’ And that’s really important I think, is offering those services to clients who would have normally not had that option," Beals said.

An aspect of tele-mental health care that's sometimes a double edged sword is its anonymity. Beals said patients are often comfortable at home and won't have to worry about prying eyes seeing them step out of their car. On the downside, professionals can't look for certain symptoms or behaviors like poor hygine or alcohol on the breath of patients when separated by a screen.

"Those are things that are more difficult to be able to assess when those clients are tele-med, but you can also see their environment. You can see their movement. You can see if you have their attention or if they seem really distracted. So those are things you normally wouldn’t be able to see if they are in the office setting," Beals said.

There's never a bad time to check in on your mental health, it may be more important now than ever with the added stress of COVID-19.

“This is a crazy time. And crazy times call for people having to make some lifestyle changes. And checking in on your personal mental health is not a bad thing. It’s a good time to say ‘hey I need to invest in me.' Make that phone call, ask for help. It’s confidential and it will help you get to where you need to be," Beals said.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous classes have also been shifted to an online format. Beals encouraged people to call Rimrock at 406-248-3175 for information on how to get connected. The website rimrock.org has more information about the services the clinic offers.

To learn more about the Eastern Montana Community Mental Health Center, visit their website emcmhc.com .

RELATED: Montana phone line for mental health services extends hours

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