May 1st, 2013

Telemedicine program launched on Block Island

A telemedicine program to help serve people with mental illness was launched on a remote island 13 miles off the coast of Rhode Island.

Stephen Hollaway, pastor of Harbor Church on Block Island and chairman of the island’s Mental Health Task Force, says he felt the need to help individuals with mental health conditions when he was called in 2010 by the Block Island Police Department regarding a suicide.

According to Hollaway, the suicide victim’s family said it was difficult to get the help needed to prevent the tragedy from occurring.

“No one from the mainland would send anyone here to follow up and (the family) said it was very hard to get needed medicine on Block Island,” he says.

Accessible only by ferry, Block Island is a summer resort for many New Englanders and New Yorkers and a permanent home for the island’s year-round residents who number around 1,000.

“For people with mental illness on Block Island, it’s hard to get to the mainland for treatment. They must be convinced to go, a trip that can last a whole day, to get the help they need,” Hollaway says. “And some people just can’t afford the trip back and forth.”

With the 2010 suicide, a task force was established comprised of retired mental health professionals, medical doctors, ministers and others to address the needs of the community.

The task force attracted the attention of island resident Michael Brownstein, a retired doctor and Steven Rasmussen, M.D., medical director at Butler Hospital and interim chair of the department of psychiatry and human behavior at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

With Brownstein and Rasmussen’s help, a pilot project was developed using computers and web cameras that allow the island’s mental health consumers and medical residents of Butler Hospital on the mainland to communicate remotely with each other. “On our side, the goal is to provide access to treatment. On Butler’s and Brown’s side, they want psychiatric residents to treat those living in rural areas rather than their typical urban population living closer to them,” Hollaway says.

Holloway says the program, located at Block Island’s Harbor Church, is funded for two years with a $23,000 grant; $3,000 for equipment and $20,000 to hire a part-time case worker managing appointments.

Robert Boland, M.D., associate director of residency training at Alpert Medical School, says Butler Hospital’s role was to figure out a simple way to provide telepsychiatry support.

“Given the limited funding, we had to develop something ‘out of the box’ using easily available technology – standard web cams and a web-based secure conferencing system,” he says.

Boland, acting as the telemedicine supervisor, says the program has been up and running for about two to three months. “So far so good, but we plan to pilot this for at least a year to get a better sense of volume and time commitment,” Boland says.

Hollaway remains optimistic. “We are receiving donations from the church and forming a non-profit organization, the Block Island Ecumenical Ministries, to fund future case managers,” Hollaway says. “It’s working fine, but it’s still baby steps,” he adds, noting the program has helped six patients to date. “We started small, but we will build from there.”

By Greg Hitchcock

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