Texas strives to provide telemedicine to more schools

Ireland Blouin, Senior News Reporter

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on March 30, 2023, but was updated on August 3, 2023, to reflect changes to the percentage of K-12 school districts in Texas that the TCHATT program serves. 

The Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium is working to expand its telemedicine program to all willing schools in Texas, with the help of the UT System.

TCMHCC provides telemedicine programs for schools, providers and parents of children in need of mental health services. Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine, a program under TCMHCC, provides schools with telehealth programs to assess the mental health needs of children and adolescents.

“No matter who you are — rich, poor, insurance, no insurance, Medicaid, whatever — it’s a free program,” said Jeffrey Shahidullah, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Dell Medical School. “It links communities, schools and hospitals together to work together through telehealth.”

The passing of SB 11 created the TCMHCC in 2019 to use the knowledge and resources of Texas institutions of higher education to “address urgent mental health challenges” and improve the state’s mental health care system. As of July 2023, the TCHATT program serves about 51.8% of K-12 school districts in Texas by providing funds to grant access for any district wanting to join the program.

“Part of this happened after Uvalde, and (our programs) weren’t in Uvalde yet, just because we’re rolling out this new program and we’ve been developing in the midst of the pandemic,” TCMHCC presiding officer David Lakey said. Dr. Lakey is also the former Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Due to a shortage of physicians, particularly in rural areas, Lakey said telehealth programs can provide access to those with fewer health care professionals in their areas. 

Part of the funding from the legislature expanded child psychiatric fellowship training program spaces in Texas.

“(This provided) more funding so that we can expand the number of places that we’re training … (and) we could train more child and adolescent psychiatrists and try to keep them in Texas,” said Ryan Brown, assistant professor of psychiatry at Dell Med. “A lot of times when someone’s training somewhere they’ll stay in that general area.”

Shahidullah said hiring people with master’s degrees could help combat the shortage.

“A lot of concerns don’t need to be treated by a psychiatrist or a psychologist,” Shahidullah said. “When you address (low-level concerns) early, you can do more from a prevention standpoint.”

Lakey said his time serving as the commissioner for health for the state gave him firsthand experience of the challenges in providing mental health services for Texans.

“Mental health is one of the issues that, if you start talking to people, really touches everybody in one way or another,” Lakey said. “Everyone has a family friend or a family member or themselves who has gone through significant struggles … I think telehealth is a smart way to leverage the resources that we have.”