The television screen, remote control and wireless keyboard in a conference room at Bartlett Regional Hospital may signal something of a revolution in child psychiatry in Southeast Alaska.
The video equipment and a digital connection will link Dr. Mark Stauffer, a Juneau child psychiatrist and pediatrician, to patients in Ketchikan and Metlakatla two half-days a week, said Ron Adler, director of the Gateway Center for Human Services in Ketchikan.
"The purpose of the pilot project is to see if enhanced technology will give Dr. Stauffer the tools he needs to conduct a comprehensive evaluation as if he were in the same room," Adler said. "The most remarkable feature is far-end camera control."
As an example, the equipment will allow a psychiatrist in Juneau to control a camera in Ketchikan, zooming in on a child who is playing with a doll while a parent provides background information, Adler said.
Stauffer said he treats children and adolescents age 3 to 18 and will provide evaluations and medication management via the video link in January.
"It will probably be a full spectrum, from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression," Stauffer said. "This helps me to be able to focus in on a patient, to see their emotions, if they have a tick, movement problems or a tremor."
Unlike jumpy video phones used in cable news coverage from the Middle East, the PictureTel 900 series video equipment provides a smoother image, Adler said.
Dr. Verner Stillner, medical director for behavioral health at Bartlett Regional Hospital, was involved in a similar tele-health program at the University of Kentucky. Parents and professionals liked it because it saved commuting time. And children responded well, he said.
"Children and adolescents, the literature shows so far, do very well being interviewed over a TV format. They're more friendly with TV than any other population group," he said.
The telepsychiatry project is another step toward the regionalization of Bartlett's hospital services, Stillner added.
Up until now, children in Ketchikan and Metlakatla have received services from an itinerant physician who flies in for a two- or three-day visit each month, Adler said.
"There are several times a year when she is weathered out. The plane is grounded for mechanical reasons or visibility prevents the plane from landing in Ketchikan," Adler said.
The telepsychiatry project won't replace the visits but supplement current services, Adler said. "We expect to increase our ability to provide psychiatric services to children by 25 to 30 percent."
More children may be able to take advantage of the service when the Inter-island Ferry Authority provides more frequent ferry trips between Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island early next year, Adler added.
For Metlakatla Social Services, the program is a step forward, Director Karen Blandov-Thompson said. The island community of about 1,400 people can be reached by boat or a floatplane from Ketchikan.
"Last year, we had nine weeks straight when a person was supposed to come over and we had no services," she said. "This gets us in touch when there's a crisis."
Bartlett has been involved in telemedicine since the mid-1990s, but the telepsychiatry project is a new opportunity, communications manager Marijo Toner said.
"We believe that northern Southeast Alaska is an ideal location for telemedicine because so many people live where providers are not available," she said.
The project was funded by the Reuben Crossett Foundation, the city of Ketchikan, the state Mental Health Trust Authority, Bartlett Regional Hospital, the Alaska Telehealth Advisory Council and the state Department of Health and Social Services.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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