Frank Brittan, Administrative Director of St. Vincent’s Westchester Outpatient Addiction Services,and Jennifer Spitz, Program Director of Outpatient Mental Health Services
BY JANICE LLANES FABRY
Pullquote: The telehealth model that emerged is arguably one of the most beneficial positive outcomes of the pandemic.
St. Vincent’s Hospital has always welcomed patients with open arms and a broad range of services. As a result of state-of-the-art virtual treatment services, it has managed to open its arms even wider.
“Our goal is to increase ease of access to treatment and to engage a broader population who might otherwise not get treatment,” said Administrative Director of Outpatient Addiction ServicesFrank Brittan.
A division of St. Joseph’s Medical Center, St. Vincent’s Westchester offers inpatient and outpatient mental health and addiction treatment services to thousands of patients at its Harrison location alone. They also have off-site behavioral and substance abuse health centers in White Plains, Tuckahoe, and Port Chester. In addition, they manage mobile crisis and residential services for the County and New York City.
“St. Vincent’s is extremely resourceful,” added Jennifer Spitz, Program Director of Outpatient Mental Health Services for adults, adolescents, and children. “We have an incredible wealth of experts across our hospital, and we all feel where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
When these mental health professionals recognized early on during the pandemic that treatment services were more critical than ever, they began implementing virtual capabilities. The telehealth model that emerged is arguably one of the most beneficial positive outcomes of the pandemic.
“Telehealth barely existed in the behavioral health world for most providers before the pandemic and expanded rapidly because of the pandemic,” explained Brittan. “Our experience using telehealth out of necessity taught us that it is a useful tool to expand services post-pandemic for programs that historically were 90 to 100 percent in-person.”
In the last three years, St. Vincent’s has fully integrated telehealth into its treatment services for mental health, addiction, and co-occurring disorders. Through donations and state grants that support the telehealth infrastructure, the hospital’s telemedicine technology is at full capacity, a vast departure from when clinicians were taking turns conducting Zoom meetings on shared computers at the start of the pandemic.
St. Vincent’s Evening Addiction Recovery Program offers its patients virtual services via Zoom. Conducted by licensed clinicians, it includes one individual therapy session per week arranged around the client’s schedule and three group therapy sessions on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays from 6:30-7:30. These HIPAA-compliant remote services are centered on the individual, especially his or her strengths.
A Telehealth Committee, which Brittan chairs, was established to track regulatory changes, develop the best internal practices, and advance the most effective, consistently implemented treatments. It provides extensive training to staff and ensures that patients are aware of the technology’s limitations.
“We have to be thoughtful about the way this modality can benefit patients. We have to make sure it’s effective for them,” Brittan remarked.
Because the interpersonal dynamics of telehealth are quite different than in-person therapy, it can be especially challenging with people presenting serious risk factors. “It’s a double-edged sword,” said Spitz. “It gives access to people, but at the same time, it can perpetuate the ongoing social isolation issue that is often at the core of mental illness.”
Noting that clinicians have discovered virtual therapy is not ideal for adolescents, Spitz explained, “They struggle with this modality. They can’t connect to a therapist on the screen as they might in person. There are also too many distractions on their phones.”
Nevertheless, telehealth treatment is often the consumer-preferred modality. Spitz calls it a “game changer” for addiction treatment. As Brittan noted, “A patient connected to treatment is five times less likely to overdose than a person using opioids who is not connected to services.”
Although chemically dependent persons are encouraged to seek treatment before spiraling, many often don’t. “People access treatment after a precipitating event. Then there’s a narrow window of opportunity for them to be receptive. They may not have access to transportation, but most have a cell phone, so they can connect with us,” said Brittan about St. Vincent’s virtual lifeline.
<Visit stvincentswestchester.org for information on all their Medical Services, Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Services, and Residential Services. Anyone experiencing a psychological crisis should call the Crisis Prevention and Response Team (CPRT) at 914-925-5959 or call 988, a national Suicide Prevention Lifeline.>