Two Northsiders are helping connect families and their primary care physicians with behavioral health care safely through telehealth.
Dr. Philip Merideth of northeast Jackson, professor of psychiatry at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), and Dr. Dustin Sarver of Madison, associate professor of pediatrics at UMMC and a clinical child psychologist, are co-principal investigators of CHAMP.
The pilot project, an acronym for Child Access to Mental Health and Psychiatry, has been using telehealth since 2018 to bridge barriers separating families from the behavioral health care their children need for conditions such as ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder and depression.
“Instead of waiting for an appointment with a mental health professional, a child’s primary care provider can call us,” Sarver said. “Within 30 minutes or less, a UMMC mental health professional is available through telehealth to consult with their physician to help that child and family.
The CHAMP concept of linking patients and their primary care providers with behavioral health care via telehealth was tailor-made for responding to a pandemic, Sarver said.
The project started by covering 24 counties in central Mississippi and the Delta, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Mississippi, CHAMP was expanded to offer telehealth statewide.
“If anything, the pandemic lit a fire under CHAMP’s expansion to meet our state’s need,” Sarver said.
“Our response to COVID-19 has given CHAMP the opportunity to expand much earlier than originally planned,” said Merideth, CHAMP’s medical director.
The project was launched by UMMC, the Mississippi Department of Mental Health and Families as Allies with a five-year $2.3 million federal cooperative agreement through the Health Resources Services Administration. CHAMP is being implemented through UMMC’s Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior.
Mississippi has the lowest number of psychiatrists per capita in the nation and the third lowest ratio of behavioral health professionals to primary care providers. Of Mississippi’s 82 counties, 45 do not have a single practicing psychiatrist or psychologist.
“Mississippi is a rural state, and families and children living in rural areas, especially in and around the Delta, have difficulty accessing behavioral health professionals,” said Lynda Stewart, division director of Children and Youth Services of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health. “This program is growing rapidly and providing support for some of the areas where mental health services are needed most. The Division of Children and Youth Services at DMH is thrilled to partner with UMMC to promote CHAMP and this needed access to mental health services.”
The fact that CHAMP is now accessible to providers throughout the state shows that steps are being taken to improve mental health resources for those age 21 and younger, said Gigi Holder, CHAMP program director and a licensed master social worker and a certified health education specialist. “This program is one of 32 similar projects happening in other states and the work being done now is imperative to making sure that this resource remains available well past the grant-funding period.”
One of CHAMP’s goals was to unclog the bottleneck to behavioral health care, Merideth said. The delay of seeing a primary care provider to get a referral, and then waiting for that appointment, is erased when the behavioral health consultation can happen, via telehealth, at the point of referral.
The result, Sarver and Merideth said, has been easier access to care without the expense and exposure of travel.
“Sometimes things move slowly in Mississippi, but this hasn’t,” said Sarver. “It’s really nice to see how satisfied families and provider are with the CHAMP model. This is more convenient for families, and providers love the immediate access to a mental health professional.”
So far, more than 20 pediatric primary care practices, representing more than 50 providers, have enrolled in CHAMP, but that number is growing, said Carson Allen, resource coordinator.
In the pandemic’s first wave, there was a medical response, Sarver said, “but in a second wave, we will likely see increases in child abuse, trauma, anxiety, stress and worry that will call for a mental health response as well, and we are here to help.”
Dr. Joy Hogge, executive director of Families as Allies, said the group is heartened by CHAMP and its growth in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Data we have gathered prior to the pandemic show that families want services close to where their children are and in familiar surroundings,” she said. “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we think families will want that even more. We are excited that as CHAMP has grown, we have been able to extend our policy work and leadership training for families with it.”
A list of COVID-19 mental health resources and CHAMP’s hotline number are available at umc.edu/CHAMP.