What Psychiatric Coverage Means To Patients and Psychiatrists

Monday, January 28th, 2013

What is psychiatric coverage?

Because of the newness of the industry, psychiatric coverage is a phrase that is not yet well known in the mental health community. “Psychiatric Coverage” is on-call coverage for psychiatrists. Similar to an on-call nurse, available after-hours during times of patient need, psychiatric coverage is what private practice psychiatrists use when they want or need to take a break from the 24/7 availability requirement. Because the law does not dictate that the treating psychiatrist must be the one to answer when a patient calls outside of office hours (likewise, a psychiatric patient can seek help and treatment from any psychiatrist or nurse at will), psychiatric coverage fulfills a need to both patients and psychiatrists. We also have an introduction to PsychCoverage and founder Jack Coughlin.

What Psychiatric Coverage means to patients

Patients understand that their psychiatrist operates a practice with normal business hours, just like a doctor’s office – limited evening and weekend appointments (if any) and, despite the legal and ethical obligation, no guarantee that phone calls after-hours will be answered. Unfortunately, patients with anxiety and depression can learn to dread the evenings and weekends when they know the office is closed and don’t have the ability to call in and have a live person answer. Most patients also feel guilty calling their psychiatrist after hours, recognizing they’re real people with lives and families and will try to wait until office hours or their next appointment, which can exacerbate their illness. When a psychiatrist goes on vacation it can trigger symptoms in patients, just because they know their doctor is out of touch.

Psychiatric coverage eases these thoughts for the patient. When a patient knows he can call in any time and talk with a trained professional, he automatically feels more relaxed. We make a point to tell every patient that their call is not an inconvenience, that it’s what we’re there for. We reassure patients that we’re here whenever they need us, whatever time of day; if their doctor is unavailable and they need someone to talk to, we answer that call. And that alone tends to have a great effect on patients. 90% of the patients who call in were diagnosed with depression or anxiety and often just want someone to talk to who understands and can provide advice or encouragement. Many of the calls PsychCoverage gets are about medication: last minute refills, questions about side effects, and questions about discontinuing the medication are highly common. These are questions the treating psychiatrist doesn’t need to be the one to answer, but the patient still needs an answer to.

What Psychiatric Coverage means to psychiatrists

For the first time in California (and soon in other states), psychiatrists can turn off their phones on evening, weekends, and vacations and not feel one ounce of guilt and not have to play catch up later. Psychiatric coverage means psychiatrists have an alternative to being “at work” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. While there’s no guarantee that every night or every weekend will involve a patient call, there’s also no guarantee that there will be no calls – which means psychiatrists have to always have their phone on, with them, and be available to take an emergency call (it doesn’t matter if a patient is calling for a medication refill, calling with a quick question about their new medication, or calling with an emergency situation, the call has to be answered). Just knowing the phone might ring, whether for a trivial reason or crisis, a psychiatrist can feel as if he is just waiting for a call when he should be resting or spending time with family.

Being able to turn the phone off and know patients will be taken care of if they need it can be immensely relaxing and comforting. We know this is a successful, if brand new, industry because our existing clients have had nothing but good things to say about our services and the relief it gives them on weekends. We remove the burden of asking colleagues for help (and returning the favor), and provide peace of mind, if nothing else. But that peace of mind can be a career saver. Very rarely, and only when the psychiatrist asks for it, do we need to contact the psychiatrist during a coverage period. During set up we gather all of the information we would need (notes on particular patients, standing refill orders, etc.) so that we can function as a seamless extension of their office.