Children with serious psychiatric problems might soon be able to get care from a specialist by visiting their pediatrician’s office.


Akron Children’s Hospital is launching a telehealth program to bring much-needed behavioral health services to young patients throughout eastern Ohio.


When the service launches on a small scale this year, patients will be able to go to their local participating pediatrician’s office for an appointment with a Children’s psychiatrist via a secure, high-definition video conference.


The goal of the program is to improve access while making behavioral-health services a more widely accepted part of overall health care for children, said Dr. Stephen Cosby, director of the Division of Pediatric Psychiatry and Psychology at Children’s.


“If you’re going to a pediatrician’s office, everybody thinks that’s normal,” he said. “There’s this idea of destigmatizing mental health and incorporating it into the overall health of a child.”


The program likely will start this summer with a yet-to-be-named local pediatric office that is part of the Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics practice, Cosby said. The appointments then can expand to other pediatric primary-care practices outside Summit County in the future.


Pediatric psychiatrists are in short supply nationwide, even though the need for their services is increasing.


According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 21 percent of children 9 to 17 nationwide have a mental or addictive disorder. However, only an estimated 20 percent of children with mental disorders are identified and receive mental-health services.


Patients often wait between one to three months for an appointment with a specialist, Cosby said. Children’s has seven pediatric psychiatrists.


The telehealth appointments will be optional, but Children’s officials expect some parents will like the convenience of a visit closer to home at a pediatrician’s office that is familiar to the family.


The telehealth service is being supported with a two-year, $463,593 grant from the Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation. The private grant-making foundation based in Hudson focuses primarily on the mental-health field.


The foundation previously provided a $1.2 million grant to help create the Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC) at Akron Children’s Hospital.


The PIRC program offers around-the-clock mental-health assessments by phone (330-543-7472) or in person in the hospital’s emergency department. The staff assesses each situation and helps the child get whatever care is needed — whether it’s emergency care for life-threatening situations or quick access to an appointment at the hospital or mental-health agency for less urgent cases.


The new mental telehealth project is one example of remote medical services that Akron Children’s Hospital wants to develop to provide young patients better access to pediatric specialists who are in short supply nationwide.


The hospital has started a Center for Telehealth Service Design to help determine where remote appointments might make sense and then to help get programs up and running.


“The center is there to facilitate explorations and develop pilot telehealth services for Akron Children’s Hospital,” said Stefan Agamanolis, director of the Center for Telehealth Service Design and associate director of the Rebecca D. Considine Research Institute at Children’s.


By using telehealth services, Children’s could make it easier for patients from throughout the 28 counties it serves to get an appointment with a pediatric specialist, Agamanolis said.


“It can be difficult accessing health-care services in our region,” he said.


Along with improving access to specialists, telehealth services could reduce health-care costs and improve outcomes by providing more immediate, coordinated care, Agamanolis said.


For now, at least, getting paid for providing care via video conference can be a challenge. The state-run Medicaid program only pays for telehealth appointments for behavioral health services, according to Agamanolis.


Nearly 46 percent of the hospital’s gross patient service revenue comes from the state-run program that insurers low-income children.


But Cosby said he expects telehealth services to gain more acceptance by government programs and private insurers as the nation moves toward a payment system that rewards preventive care.


Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or chpowell@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.