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Minnesota prisons resort to video for psychiatric care

July 22, 2019

RUSH CITY, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota prisons are turning to telepsychiatry to provide inmates with mental health care.

Telepsychiatry is the provision of psychiatric services via video conferencing services such as Skype or FaceTime.

Michelle Saari, who directs the psychological services at the men’s prison in Rush City, said the prison’s rural location makes having in-person mental health treatment difficult. She said it can take up to two hours to reach the facility from a major metro area.

“So to recruit providers for psychiatry here can sometimes be challenging,” said Saari.

Psychiatrist Edward Kaftarian, who runs a telepsychiatry company in California, noted that since psychiatrists focus on medication management, in-person sessions are less important compared with therapy.

“With telepsychiatry, it opens up that recruitment pool to anyone,” he said. “It can be anyone across the nation as long as they have a license for that state.”

Psychiatrist Tanuja Reddy is based in Nashville, Tennessee, and treats inmates in Rush City. She told Minnesota Public Radio News that she can assess and gauge emotions and feelings through the screen.

“There is something to be said about a person’s demeanor, their actions, their movements that gives us an idea what they’re going through,” Reddy said. She added that effectiveness relies on the position of the camera and a strong internet connection. A frozen or choppy connection makes it impossible for the doctor to do the job properly.

Telepsychiatrists fill in the gaps they experience when treating their patients by establishing a relationship with people working on site, including nurses, psychologists and correctional officers.

Correctional systems often don’t have electronic medical records, so somebody has to scan or fax the records to the psychiatrist, according to David Fathi, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

“It’s a common problem in correctional use of telepsychiatry that the remote psychiatrist does not have access,” Fathi said.

But Kaftarian said the question is not whether seeing a doctor in person is better than seeing one remotely. The real question, he said, is whether seeing a psychiatrist remotely is better than not seeing one at all.

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Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mprnews.org

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