The Physician Spotlight Series is an opportunity to highlight the value and expertise of VirtualMed Staff’s team of physicians. Throughout this series, our goal is to share our physicians’ stories, their journeys with telemedicine, and detail the value and benefits that telemedicine offers to patients across the country.
It’s uncommon for happenchance to evolve into a life-long passion, but that’s exactly how Dr. Atul Sheth would describe his introduction to psychiatry. “Psychiatry was never my first choice, but it just kind of fell in my lap,” says Dr. Sheth. “Originally, I wanted to be a cardiologist, but here I am, 35 years later, and psychiatry has been my passion ever since.”
Dr. Sheth is a Psychiatrist with VirtualMed Staff who currently supports several telepsychiatry programs across the country. With over 35 years of experience in psychiatry, Dr. Sheth left private practice seven years ago to pursue telepsychiatry full-time. Throughout his career, Dr. Sheth has had the fortune to experience the evolution of telepsychiatry firsthand, and shared with us his early experiences and how they’ve led to his current focus of treating substance abuse patients.
A telemedicine early adopter
Telemedicine has been in the peripheral of healthcare for decades, but it wasn’t until the coronavirus pandemic that it entered the mainstream. However, for Dr. Sheth, telemedicine has been a journey spanning decades. “I was probably part of the first group of physicians to get started in telepsychiatry in Illinois,” reflects Dr. Sheth.
Early in his career, Dr. Sheth served as a Director for a Psychiatry program in Illinois. As is the case with many rural parts of the country, the lack of board-certified psychiatrists meant that Dr. Sheth needed to drive hours to see patients. “I used to drive three hours one way and three hours back just for two hours of service. It was not a good use of time.”
At the time, there was no reimbursement and many of the psychiatrists were forced to eat much of the costs. “It was a rocky start,” says Dr. Sheth. “But within a year, myself and many of my associates were seeing the benefit of telepsychiatry and started to branch out and begin offering services to Veterans groups.”
Today, telemedicine adoption is surging. Between 2014 and 2018, telehealth visits increased an astounding 1,400%. With the push to virtual care brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, telemedicine visits topped 1 billion in 2020. Even more so, Deloitte predicts that virtual visits will rise to 5% globally, up from an estimated 1% in 2019.
With telemedicine reaching mainstream acceptance, the benefits of virtual care are extending further than Dr. Sheth could have imagined. Telemedicine has even enabled Dr. Sheth to pursue treating patients he previously didn’t have exposure to.
The opiate crisis and telemedicine
The United States is in the midst an opiate crisis that claimed the lives of almost 72,000 in 2019, a figure that has increased since the start of the pandemic. For Dr. Sheth, his psychiatry background enabled him to focus on helping patients suffering from opiate addiction with telemedicine.
“What initially got me interested in treating substance abuse was my work with VirtualMed Staff in California,” says Dr. Sheth. “That’s where I was first exposed to substance abuse issues and it really opened my eyes to the value telemedicine provides.” Prior to this, Dr. Sheth says that much of his focus was on psychiatric disorders and issues that affected the brain. At the time, the common response to substance abuse patients was referring them to services like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for treatment.
“It’s definitely a disease because it changes a person’s brain,” says Dr. Sheth. “Ignoring these patients isn’t the approach to getting them better. If you’re trying to save lives, then telepsychiatry will get you closer to that.”
According to Dr. Sheth, one of the biggest benefits that telepsychiatry provides to opiate patients is access to follow-up care and outpatient services. With many patients lacking transportation or availability to come in for treatment, telepsychiatry is a way to provide care directly in the patient’s home.
“I would never be able to do this kind of work without telepsychiatry,” says Dr. Sheth. “I’m using my time so much more productively.”
A final message about telepsychiatry
The knowledge and expertise that Dr. Sheth brings to VirtualMed Staff’s telepsychiatry programs not only benefits patients, but it promotes a positive reputation for telemedicine and telepsychiatry as a valuable healthcare solution moving forward.
“I wanted to share my story because I hope I can impress upon a new generation of doctors and provide them with the positive side of telemedicine,” says Dr. Sheth. “Not only are patients thrilled to see a physician via telemedicine, but the onsite staff are enthusiastic about telepsychiatry, as well” says Dr. Sheth. “Now they have a solution to offer patients who, instead of sitting in the emergency department for four days waiting on a psychiatrist to see them, can now see a telepsychiatrist within two hours.”
Dr. Sheth’s hard work and dedication to telemedicine is a testament to the value of telemedicine and the benefits it provides to millions of patients across the country. As a valued member of VirtualMed Staff’s team of virtual physicians, we’re thankful to Dr. Sheth for allowing us to share his story and look forward to sharing more in the future.