There’s a mental health care provider shortage in America, and the Lebanon area is no different. While it’s critical for children to be seen quickly before it’s too late, this CDC interactive map shows that many counties have no – or very few – psychiatrists or psychologists to respond if a child is in need of mental help.
That’s why one year ago, Mercy took steps to meet kids’ needs in the place they’re used to going: their pediatrician or family medicine doctor’s office.
“We knew we needed to expand the number of doctors who feel they’re able to competently diagnose kids with mental illness and get them started right away on a treatment plan,” said Dr. Kyle John, Mercy pediatric psychiatrist. “Most pediatricians and family medicine doctors only spend a day in med school focusing on mental health, so we set out to provide them with the additional tools they needed.”
After years with Mercy caring for kids in an office setting, Dr. John joined the team at Mercy Virtual – the world’s first health care facility dedicated entirely to care outside its own walls – to create a training program they dubbed vMentalWellness Kids. As part of the program, Mercy pediatricians, pediatric subspecialists and family medicine doctors receive training to strengthen their skills in diagnosing the four most common mental issues in children:
Now, a year later, more than 1,200 patients have benefited from the program. Nearly 250 Mercy caregivers across Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas have been trained, including 34 pediatricians and primary care doctors in the Ozarks. That includes Dr. Caroline Campbell in Lebanon and Dr. Karen Hopkins in Richland.
“It’s been harder and harder for my patients to get appointments with child psychologists due to a lack of providers,” Dr. Hopkins said. “Now, I can offer recommendations to a family before they even leave my office and I feel much more confident if I need to prescribe psychoactive medications.”
What makes vMentalWellness Kids truly innovative is that the Mercy Virtual team is always on standby to consult with local Mercy providers. They can get into the patient’s electronic health record (EHR), review their history and medications and help make a diagnosis. In a few cases, when a patient with a more complicated issue comes in, the virtual team has provided an immediate, secure video visit to assess the symptoms firsthand.
“I’ve used the virtual team to either patient charts and make recommendations for managing patients’ conditions,” Dr. Hopkins added. “I like that the team is collaborative. We’ve worked together to identify mental health resources along the I-44 corridor and I’ve helped make that information easy for other providers to find in our electronic system.”
For families, the program means immediate help in a familiar setting instead of waiting months for an appointment and even traveling to see a specialist. Sarah Ford, a 14-year-old Mercy patient in Springfield, Missouri, encourages other kids to ask for help like she did.
“It’s scary at first, when you ask for help,” she said. “I was afraid of being locked away or something, but it was the opposite of that. My biggest fear when I walked in was that no one could help me, but they did.”
In fact, the visit was much more than either Sarah or her mother expected. Because Sarah had been having hallucinations, her pediatrician arranged for an immediate, secure virtual visit with Cassie Turner, an advanced practice psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with the vMentalWellness Kids team at Mercy Virtual.
“I was so relieved,” Susan said. “As a mom, I wasn’t sure what to do. That immediate help kept me from being overwhelmed.”
Sarah is now managing her mental health with both therapy and medication, and says other kids shouldn't be worried about reaching out.
“I usually don’t like to talk to people about my depression, but they rolled in something that looked like an iPad with a speaker below it and it was cool,” she said. “She was easy to talk to and the more I talked, the better I felt. "