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Use of telemedicine for mental health in rural areas on the rise but uneven

Newly published research by Harvard Medical School and the RAND Corporation reveals a dramatic growth in the use of telemedicine for the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders in rural areas, but strikingly uneven distribution of services across states.

The results, published in Health Affairs, stem from analysis of telemedicine use among Medicare beneficiaries nationwide over10 years.

The study shows an average 45 percent jump per year in telemedicine visits between 2004 and 2014, among rural patients, with striking variation across states. Four states had no such visits in 2014, while in nine states, there were more than 25 telemedicine visits per 100 patients with serious mental illness.

The reasons for the dramatically uneven distribution remain unclear, but the study investigators say state laws that regulate the provision and reimbursement of telemedicine services for mental health appear to play some role.

“Our results highlight the growing importance of telemedicine in the treatment of mental health disorders in rural settings where access to mental health care is often problematic,” said study lead investigator Ateev Mehrotra, associate professor in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School.

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