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Rural Alaska

Real-time video conferencing brings psychiatry back to Aleutian Islands

  • Author: Jim Paulin
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 17, 2013

Heavy emotional baggage can now be handled locally without an expensive 792-mile flight from Unalaska/Dutch Harbor to Anchorage.

A hand-held tablet computer is the latest development in mental health care in the Aleutian Islands. Using online video conferencing, patients in Unalaska can see and talk to a therapist in Anchorage without spending around a thousand dollars for a roundtrip airline ticket.

"This provides patients the ability to schedule and receive psychiatric counseling without waiting for quarterly psychiatric visits. Similar to Skyping, but through a secure video conferencing network, it offers the patient and psychiatrist live interaction via the computer," according to Iliuliuk clinic executive director Eileen Scott.

The service started on Oct. 14, she said.

"Real time psychiatric counseling provides a more efficient approach to psychiatric counseling where patients do not have to wait months for a psychiatrist to come to Unalaska or to fly into Anchorage for care," Scott said.

Patients can talk to the doctor with a local mental health staffer sitting in, or privately with nobody else listening, Scott said.

Many patients have already benefited from Vidyo Link Psychiatric Counseling, calling it a convenient and confidential way to meet with the doctor, according to Scott, adding that it also provides timely medication monitoring and diagnostic testing without long waits.

"Clients feel more at ease, knowing their needs will be attended to quickly and conveniently" said Beth Weeks, former director of behavioral health at the clinic. The iPad's high-quality resolution makes it seem like the doctor really is in the room. "Once you're connected, it's like you're having a conversation. There's no delay," she said.

Scott said the service is "driven by local feedback and is part of Iliuliuk Family and Health Service's commitment to deliver the latest technology to the Unalaska community while also providing meaningful cost saving by way of reducing travel. Vidyo Link Psychiatric Counseling is available for appointments with Dr. Mark T. Erickson, from the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, and is part of a pilot program funded through API and GCI Communications."

The clinic's former psychiatrist, Greg McCarthy, retired last year after 21 years of flying in from Anchorage for quarterly visits. The clinic has not had a psychiatrist come to town since then, Scott said. The video visits should save the clinic about $20,000 annually, considering the cost of flying a psychiatrist to town, plus consulting fees, she said. The clinic may eventually resume bringing a mental health doctor to town, depending on demand for services, Scott said.

This story was originally published in The Bristol Bay Times and is reprinted here with permission.

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