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Murphy Hospital First Rural NC Hospital To Offer Extended Telepsychiatry Services

Courtesy of Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital
Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital has been offering telepsychiatric services since 2015. Now the services will expand for therapy after a diagnosis.

A hospital at the western end of North Carolina is expanding psychiatric services through a pilot program that is the first of its kind in the state.

Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital in Murphy serves three of the westernmost counties in North Carolina - Cherokee, Clay and Graham.  All three have a shortage of mental health professionals says Teresa Bowleg Chief of Operations and Assistant Chief Nursing Officer at Erlanger Western Carolina.

“This results in a growing dependency for our 12-bed emergency room to care for patients when they are in mental health crisis - because there is just nowhere else for them to go when they are in a crisis,” said Bowleg.  

This need is one reason that Erlanger began partnering with East Carolina University to offer telepsychiatric services in the hospital in 2015. It’s part of the North Carolina Statewide Telepsychiatry (NC-STeP) program which provides telebehavioral counseling and care coordination.   Now those services are expanding in Murphy thanks to a $1.2 million federal grant for emergency departments in rural North Carolina.  

The Murphy hospital will be the first in the state to take part in the program, four more will soon be added. The program will now make additional telepsych care available for patients after they are discharged. 

“The ability to offers telepsychiatry services in our emergency department ensures that we are able to provide appropriate care that patients might not be able to receive otherwise,” said Bowleg.  

The closest behavioral health facility in North Carolina is almost 3 hours away in Haywood County, according to Bowleg. Although there is a community health program in nearby Andrews.

Non-profit Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital is part the Tennessee-based Erlanger Health system. However, non-voluntary patients cannot be transferred across state lines to its Chattanooga sister hospital.

Bowleg explains that the emergency department already works virtually with specialists, consultants and therapists. (A similar process is also in place at Mission Hospital.) Now more services like follow-up virtual therapy sessions will also be available.

“So a licensed therapist will do a counseling session through telepsych,” said Bowleg, explaining that patients can now access these services after they leave the hospital .   

The pandemic has only increased the need for mental health care and for telehealth visits.  Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital has seen a 14 percent increase in behavioral health patients over the last year, over 500 patients in total.  

Now Bowleg hopes that this ability to schedule follow-up care virtually will decrease the number of behavioral health patients who end up in the emergency room. 

Overall, Bowleg says folks are starting to feel safe at the hospital again as we seen a drop in COVID-19 cases and a rise in vaccinations around the country.  

“We’re starting to see some of that fear subside and people start to come back in to seek that care that they need,” she said.  

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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