Taking telepsychiatry to the back roads of S.C.

March 02, 2023
A woman and child look at an iPad while sitting on a couch
PARTNER, an MUSC-led program that pairs board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners with patients in rural areas through telemedicine, is filling a much-needed gap in mental healthcare in our state. Photo by iStock

We all know that one person who won’t let us stay down too long. The one who’s always ready with a silver lining, a bright side, a ray of hope. That describes Simone Chinnis, DNP, to a T. In fact, you get the sense Chinnis is always ready to heal the world one hug at a time – while multitasking to ensure she meets the demands of her job.

After all, that’s how she was raised. Growing up in Charleston, she remembers her parents instilling in her several key values – like treat people with respect, be confident in who you are and always lend a helping hand. 

“They used to always say, ‘If something benefits you, it needs to also benefit others,’” said Chinnis.

It’s a core belief system that has stuck with the Academic Magnet graduate several decades later – in fact, it’s still at the heart of everything she does. Once a week, she provides clinical care at Pelican Pediatrics, using her bilingual skills to care for multilingual/multicultural patients. The rest of the week, she’s an instructor at MUSC’s College of Nursing. Naturally, she’s the kind of professor whose door is always open and cellphone on. And for many of her students, that relationship doesn’t end after they’re done with her class. In fact, she stays in touch with many of her former students, long after they have graduated. 

“I’m not just here to teach them in this moment; I’m here for the duration of their academic and professional journeys,” she said.

Recently, Chinnis even found a way to take those relationships a step further. After the departure of her mentor and former CON Dean of Practice Debbie Bryant, DNP, Chinnis stepped into the leadership role for the Psychiatric Advanced Practice Registered Nurse TechNology-Enhanced Residency (or PARTNER), a fellowship for board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners that advances behavioral health equity by providing collaborative, telepsychiatric care to patients who reside in rural South Carolina. 

What sets PARTNER apart is that it’s all done online. The nurse practitioners in the program are able to operate from home as are the patients – making it even easier, and more cost-effective, to reach people in rural parts of the state. 

Woman standing on balcony overlooking Charleston 
To date, Dr. Simone Chinnis and PARTNER have provided more than 1,600 clinical visits to rural South Carolinians. Photo by Josh Goodwin

“Some people might not have access to a mental health provider, but PARTNER erases geographical barriers,” Chinnis said. “If you have access to the internet, then we can meet your behavioral health needs.” 

At a time when mental health care has never been in higher demand, the much-needed program fills a critical gap, getting help to people who need it while at the same time giving those new NPs some valuable real-world experience. Each NP in the program satisfies a year-long residency. 

“It’s a win, win. The return on investment for this program is immense. The providers enhance their current skill set while patients receive needed, quality care. We are enhancing workforce readiness while meeting the needs of the community,” she said.

Even though PARNTER is helping to lessen the disparity between the number of mental health providers and S.C. patients in need, it’s still a program that Chinnis finds herself fighting for on a daily basis. 

“My biggest challenge these days is figuring out how to pay for this,” she said of the program that is funded by a Duke Endowment grant until December 2023. Though the program has very little in overhead costs, Chinnis still needs funding so she can recruit and pay the residents in 2024. 

“This is too good of a thing – we are simply trying to meet society’s needs,” she said. “We could just use a little more long-term stability.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in 2021 – when the pandemic was in full swing – 37.6% of adults in South Carolina reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. More than 23% of that group was unable to get needed counseling or therapy. And it’s not just adults who are in need: 56.2% of South Carolinians age 12 to 17 who have depression did not receive any care in 2020. In short, our state (and the nation as a whole) has more people in need than the system can currently support. This makes programs like Chinnis’ even more critical.

“We’re in a society where the need for mental health care is escalating exponentially,” Chinnis said. “This program is so important in our current climate.”

To date, the program has treated and diagnosed nearly 100 different behavioral health conditions over the course of more than 1,600 patient visits – a herculean task, given that PARTNER is comprised of just two providers, not including Chinnis. And yet, on any given day they will treat as many as 10 patients.

“Although we’re just a pilot program, we’ve quickly evolved into a functional clinic,” Chinnis said. “Sure, we’re a small group, but we’re planting a seed, and we’re watering it. I wholeheartedly believe in what we’re doing and want it to become even more prosperous in the future. And, I believe it will happen. For the mental well-being of our community, it has to happen.”