Association Between Telepsychiatry Capability and Treatment of Patients With Mental Illness in the Emergency Department

Psychiatr Serv. 2021 Aug 19;appips202100145. doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.202100145. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

Objective: Because of limited access to psychiatrists, patients with acute mental illness in some emergency departments (EDs) may wait days for a consultation in the ED or as a medical-surgical admission. The study assessed whether telepsychiatry improves access to care and decreases ED wait times and hospital admissions.

Methods: ED visits with a primary diagnosis of mental illness were identified from 2010-2018 Medicare claims. A total of 134 EDs across 22 states that implemented telepsychiatry between 2013 and 2016 were matched 1:1 with control EDs without telepsychiatry on several characteristics, including availability of in-person psychiatrist consultations. Outcomes included patients' likelihood of admission to a medical-surgical or psychiatric bed, mental illness spending, prolonged ED length of stay (LOS) (two or more midnights in the ED), 90-day mortality, and outpatient follow-up care. Using a difference-in-difference design, changes in outcomes between the 3 years before telepsychiatry adoption and the 2 years after were examined.

Results: There were 172,708 ED mental illness visits across the 134 matched ED pairs in the study period. Telepsychiatry adoption was associated with increased admissions to a psychiatric bed (differential increase, 4.3 percentage points; p<0.001), decreased admissions to a medical-surgical bed (differential decrease, 2.0 percentage points; p<0.001), increased likelihood of a prolonged ED LOS (differential increase, 3.0 percentage points; p<0.001), and increased mental illness spending (differential increase, $292; p<0.01).

Conclusions: Telepsychiatry adoption was associated with a lower likelihood of admission to a medical-surgical bed but an increased likelihood of admission to a psychiatric bed and a prolonged ED LOS.

Keywords: Emergency psychiatry; Telecommunications; Telemedicine; Telepsychiatry.