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Technology boosts mental health

Wiring health statewide

When the tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo. on May 22, 2011, it flattened thousands of homes and cut off power and water supplies.

The storm also took a toll on residents’ mental health. Many who escaped the violence of the storm were left mourning the deaths of friends and family.

Using telehealth technology, MU doctors helped rebuild Joplin’s emotional well being without leaving their posts in Columbia. University psychiatrists teamed up with the Ozark Center, a mental health clinic in Joplin, to treat more than 100 patients remotely in the months following the disaster.

“When we learned they needed psychiatric services in Joplin, we knew it was our responsibility to step up,” says John Lauriello, chair of psychiatry at MU. The services were paid for through disaster relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

MU’s School of Medicine is home to the Missouri Telehealth Network, which was established in 1994 to help serve rural populations facing physician shortages. It now reaches more than 200 sites in 56 counties using a high-speed intrastate Internet connection.

In a telehealth appointment, the doctor turns on the television set and attached video camera that is kept in a private room at the hospital. The physician then dials the number to the patient’s room, which is equipped with the same technology, and a videoconference between patient and caregiver begins.

Joplin patients were scheduled for hourlong appointments with one of 15 university psychiatrists.

“The nurse [in Joplin] introduces the patient, then leaves, and then the patient talks to me,” says Jairam Das, chief psychiatry resident of the psychiatry department. “They were experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, acute nightmares and flashbacks.”

For many patients, the appointment was a safe place to share their stories and begin dealing with their loss. Das listened to survivors described losing their houses and jobs.

“Some of the patients never had mental health issues. Some patients had psychiatric problems in the past and came in with worsening depression,” Das says. “They were happy to talk to anyone.”

For those patients in need of medication, Das sent prescriptions electronically directly to a Joplin pharmacy.

The technology allows real-time, visual interaction with patients, which is crucial to proper diagnosis, says Rachel Mutrux, director of the Missouri Telehealth Network. It isn’t face-to-face, but in a disaster it works.

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