There’s a mental health care provider shortage in America, and Oklahoma 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 Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas have been trained, including more than 30 in Oklahoma. That includes providers in smaller communities like Ardmore.
“We have no resources locally for pediatric mental health, but we are in great need and it’s why I got trained by Mercy Virtual,” said Dr. Summer Kirby, a Mercy family practice and obstetrics physician in Ardmore. “They don’t provide much mental health training in medical residency. We have so many kids who are in need of this treatment in my practice and in the Ardmore community.”
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.
“Mercy’s virtual team is a great resource because with the shortage of mental health professionals especially in pediatrics, we do not always have access to timely referrals for our patients,” said Dr. Elizabeth McCabe, a Mercy Clinic pediatrician in Oklahoma City. “The stakes are high with our children and with a virtual team at the ready, we can get a quick expert consult without waiting months.”
For families, it 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.”
According to Mental Health America, rates of severe depression in children continue to increase significantly, and more than 1.7 million kids who’ve had major depressive episodes have not received treatment.
A March 2017 report from the Milbank Foundation recommended that because of a well-known shortage of pediatric psychiatrists and other mental health providers, more should be done to integrate mental health care into the pediatrician’s office.