Squeezed between a shortage of child psychiatrists and an increase in pediatric patients experiencing an onslaught of mental health issues due to the pandemic, pediatricians have been hard-pressed to meet those children’s needs.
But a program funded by the State of Texas and run by pediatric mental health experts at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth Houston) is giving them a place to turn for help.
The Child Psychiatric Access Network (CPAN) is a network of psychiatric access centers staffed by child psychiatrists to provide pediatricians and primary care providers with live telephone case consultation as well as training opportunities related to common child mental health concerns. The Louis A. Faillace, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston serves as a regional hub for the program.
The network allows physicians, such as Aisha Khan, MD, a pediatrician in Katy, to address problems before they become emergencies. In Khan’s practice, the number of children presenting with multiple mental health needs has increased since the onset of COVID-19. Across the country, in the winter of 2021, suicide attempts by female teenagers doubled compared to the same period in 2019, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Before the pandemic, children were familiar with a certain routine to their lives that changed overnight. That by itself is a triggering event for mental health-related illnesses,” she said.
Conditions such as depression, ADHD, or anxiety, she can manage alone as a pediatrician, Khan said. However, due to the sheer number of patients presenting with multiple mental health conditions, it is important for her to have the expertise of a child psychiatrist as she navigates their care.
“CPAN gives me the resources I need to provide equitable care to my patients, whether that’s guiding me to a treatment plan, or assisting with a referral to a behavioral therapist or psychiatrist. It allows me to build a bridge to chronic care in addressing these comorbidities,” Khan said.
Janet Chen, MD, an assistant professor in the Faillace Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and medical director of the CPAN program at UTHealth Houston, compares the network to the mantra of “it takes a village.”
“Parents are likely to first approach their pediatrician or family doctor, whom they have an established relationship with, when they have concerns about their child’s mental health or behavior,” she said. “Added to the existing child psychiatry workforce shortage, the average wait time to see a child psychiatrist is eight weeks in some suburban areas of Texas. Wait times in rural or more underserved areas is much longer.”
CPAN offers support to pediatricians and family doctors who are providing care for children waiting on appointments with a child psychiatrist, or those who may be providing care to children with mild to moderate mental health concerns whose condition may not require direct care by a specialist. Within 30 minutes, a pediatrician who has a patient with behavioral or mental health concerns can get help from a child psychiatrist or licensed counselor at UTHealth Houston. Child psychiatry experts can advise the pediatrician on questions related to diagnosis and treatment, as well as medication and resources for continued care.
Launched in 2020 and funded by the Texas state legislature, CPAN is a free resource for pediatricians and primary care physicians to help pediatric patients with mental health challenges. For more information on CPAN or to enroll in the network, visit the UTHealth Houston Child Psychiatry Access Network.
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