Avera Health is expanding the use of telemedicine to address a shortage of behavioral and addiction health services in rural communities.

In September, Avera Health was awarded a three-year grant of $746,000 from the Health Resources and Services Administration's Office of Rural Health Policy (HRSA). As part of the Substance Abuse Treatment Telehealth Network Grant Program, the funding is geared toward advancing the use of telemedicine to assist with access to behavioral health providers and substance abuse treatment.

"Telemedicine has to be the answer because I do not know how we will continue to address these needs in our rural areas," said Matthew Stanley, a psychiatrist at Avera Medical Group University Psychiatry Associates in Sioux Falls.

The funding from the grant will be used to develop a program to expand access to individuals struggling with substance abuse. The focus of the efforts will be for people who live in the areas served by Avera Flandreau Hospital and Avera St. Luke's Hospital in Aberdeen. According to Stanley, the goal is to start here and expand to other service areas in the near future.

The program will include substance abuse disorder screenings, intervention and referrals to treatment providers and assistance with expanding access to Medication-Assisted Treatment.

Avera Health was one of 13 rural health organizations and 1,178 health centers that received an award from a HRSA grant.

Additionally, Avera Health, through its mobile app, AveraNow, is increasing access to naloxone, a drug used to treat opioid overdoses. Through the use of the app, individuals can get education and/or an electronic prescription for naloxone to pick up at a pharmacy. Naloxone is a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. According to Stanley, this is one immediate way telemedicine can be used to directly deal with the opioid crisis across the nation, as well as in South Dakota.

While Avera Health has utilized telemedicine services since the early 1990s, there continues to be room for improvement. According to Stanley, medical insurance companies oftentimes fail to recognize telemedicine as a service, which can present issues reimbursing payments. In rural communities, oftentimes connectivity to internet access and Wi-Fi can also be an issue, which can impact the access to telemedicine services.

A trend in access to behavioral health nationally is a shortage of psychiatrists, and South Dakota is no exception, stated Stanley.

"The number one need when we go out to these communties is they are asking for psychiatry support," said Tammy Hatting, Avera eCare Innovation Director. ""With telemedicine you can go to your local clinic and see a specialist telemedically."

Avera Health is also increasing the use of educational services through telemedicine to teach primary health care providers on best practices for behavioral health.

"Addiction and behavioral health issues continue to be associated with a large number of fatalities," Stanley said. "We need to continue to develop telemedicine if we are going to service a state like South Dakota."