Via Christi, Comcare joining in virtual visits for mental health services

Via Christi is partnering with Comcare, Sedgwick County’s mental health services center, to provide “virtual visits” for patients requiring psychiatric evaluations.

The program, which uses software called NetClinic and is similar to Skype video messaging, aims to eliminate how long a patient would need to wait for an appointment as well as reduce staff travel time.

“It’s about as close as you can get to sitting in the room with someone,” said Matt Macaluso, medical director for Via Christi’s psychiatric clinic and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita. He supervises KU medical residents who use the Virtual Visit program on a daily basis.

The program, which officials said complies with federal health privacy regulations, will be used for an estimated three or four patients a day, said Jason Scheck, director of outpatient services for Comprehensive Community Care of Sedgwick County.

The new program will allow Comcare staff members to do evaluations from their facility instead of driving to the psychiatric assessment center at Via Christi’s hospital on East Harry.

“In the past, a mental health professional would have driven to the Via Christi (psychiatric) emergency room, found the patient and done the interview there,” Scheck said.

“Virtual Visits allows us to get a patient set up in a room for this and be able to log on through a computer in a matter of minutes.”

Scheck said he hopes the new process will also reduce wait times at the Comcare facility since staff members will be driving less between locations.

The program is being used by Comcare at no cost to the county, Scheck said.

Comcare provides two types of psychiatric evaluations, Scheck said. One evaluation is to see if patients should be considered eligible for admission to the Osawatomie State Hospital.

The other is to see if patients on Medicaid or who may qualify for Medicaid meet KanCare managed care organization criteria for hospital admission, Scheck said.

Via Christi has been using the program for about a year and has tested it in its home health wound care program and ePharmacy program, said Susan Bumstead, assistant chief nurse officer for Via Christi Behavioral Health.

Its psychiatric assessment center at the hospital on East Harry sees about 700 patients per month, Bumstead said. Of those, about half are admitted at Via Christi or elsewhere.

Bumstead said officials hope the program will soon be able to be accessible on staff members’ smartphones or tablets.

“Our goal would be to be able to deploy this beyond Comcare to be able to help support other counties … to be as deployable as people, to tie the clinician to the patient,” she said.

Macaluso agreed and said that in the recruitment process, residents often ask about how technology is used in the program.

Eventually, Macaluso said, providers “can be sitting in their bedroom at home and with a patient in another state. That’s kind of the future of this field.”