PITTSFIELD -- Berkshire Medical Center has been awarded $500,000 in grant funding from the Massachusetts Attorney General's office to implement a "telepsychiatry" program -- an effort to enhance treatment of patients in remote locations of the county.

Dr. Alex Sabo, chairman of the BMC Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, said the funding will help set up a technological system that will allow doctors to consult with each other from different locations in the county to form treatment or evaluation plans for patients anywhere in the region.

By doing so, Sabo said, new efficiencies will be realized and as a result, more patients will end up getting treatment for important psychiatric maladies.

"Berkshire County is the most rural county in the state," Sabo said. "So the question becomes: When people are so spread out how do you get specialized care to them without all the drive time?"

He noted that most psychiatrists are located in cities, and half of them are over 55 years old. So finding a way for them to interface with other specialists and patients in rural areas would result in a tremendous increase in the number of people with access to psychiatric care.

"Rural districts and aging psychiatrists mean we have to be thinking ahead of the curve in terms of treating the remote populations," Sabo said.

According to a 2003 study, Sabo said, 60 percent of the adult population had medical conditions, and 29 percent of them also suffered from mental disorders. And in general, 25 percent of the overall population suffers from some type of mental disorder.

So telepsychiatry, using computers to allow a team of doctors to have face-to-face consultations, will "enhance communication among patients, local health care providers and experts at BMC," he added.

Like any new treatment process, Sabo said, it has to be "safe, timely, efficient, effective, equitable and patient-centered."

"We're exploring new territory here," he said. "So we haven't really tested the limits yet,"

Dr. Jennifer Michaels, medical director at the Brien Center and staff psychiatrist at BMC, said the concept of telepsychiatry has been around for about a decade in limited forms. But the advantages to having the ability for visual and audio conversations in real time could be many.

"There are huge advantages because telemedicine allows us to reach more people in need of services -- people who otherwise would have challenges in reaching established services," Michaels said. "It allows more providers to interact with people in need."

David E. Phelps, CEO of Berkshire Health Systems, parent company of BMC, said the medical center is committed to expanding the reach of its services to outlying regions of the county.

"We believe this generous grant will significantly facilitate this team effort through the use of new technology - telepsychiatry - and we are grateful to the attorney general for recognizing the significant need for enhanced mental health services in the Berkshires," he said. "We will work with our partners and also recruit new partners to achieve improved services for our community."

The grant funding was part of a $62.5 million settlement between the state and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, to resolve allegations the company engaged in illegal practices in marketing antipsychotic drugs Risperdal and Invega.

The complaint filed by the state charged Janssen with promoting Risperdal to treat elderly dementia and other conditions in children and adolescents when the uses were not shown to be safe, effective or approved by the FDA. Janssen also allegedly down-played serious side effects of the drug, including diabetes.

"Addressing access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment with the same urgency as physical health care is essential to thousands of families across our Commonwealth," said state Attorney General Martha Coakley. "The programs supported by these funds will help end the stigma around behavioral health care and improve access to critical health services for families in every corner of Massachusetts."

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 663-3741, ext. 227.
On Twitter: @BE_SStafford