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Feature

Gary Davis appears on a television.

Through telemedicine, UMD's Gary Davis has been able too reach mental health clients in rural Minnesota.

Local hero

Bringing mental health care to rural Minnesota

By Michelle Junteman

From M, winter 2007

Primary care physician George Rounds knew that 12-year-old Jamie (not her real name) needed special help. Her birth mother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and Jamie was in the care of an adoptive parent. Jamie displayed bizarre behavior at home and acted out in school.

Rounds decided to move quickly, but his clinic, the Northland Medical Center in Bigfork, Minnesota (population 469), didn't have a specialist. Rounds knew that an appointment with one "sometime in the future" and a series of all-day roundtrips to Duluth (the closest major city) for mental health consultations would not serve Jamie well.

So Duluth came to George Rounds and to Jamie.

With TV monitors and cameras, Gary Davis, a licensed psychologist at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Duluth, talked to Jamie while she sat at the clinic in Bigfork and he sat in his office, 125 miles away.

"The patient sees me on a TV monitor, and I see him or her on a similar screen," says Davis. "And although it's not the same as being in the same room as a person, it's a reasonably close approximation."

This summer, Davis was named a "rural health hero" at the Minnesota Rural Health Conference, for supporting people like Jamie and primary care physicians like Rounds.

Via this "telemental" technique, Davis was able to diagnose Jamie's problems and develop a treatment plan. Today, Jamie is back in school and, as Rounds says, "is doing dramatically well with relationships."

Davis heads the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Duluth's Medical School and is associate director of the school's Center for Rural Mental Health Studies (CRMHS). Rather than simply creating an urban care system in rural Minnesota, psychologists at the center are shaping a system of mental health care that fits the rural setting culturally, financially, and geographically.

"Dr. Davis has been very helpful in allowing our psychiatric patients to remain close to home and be treated in the community," says Harold Johnston, primary care physician in Cook's Scenic Rivers Health Services. Davis and his team also serve patients in Littlefork Medical Center and are working on opening virtual clinics in Paynesville, Mora, and Ely.

This summer, Davis was named a "rural health hero" at the Minnesota Rural Health Conference, for supporting people like Jamie and primary care physicians like Rounds. But Davis is not that comfortable with his new status: "To me the real-world heroes are the rural doctors who are out there working without the support that cities offer," he says.