OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska health officials are exploring how to use technology to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment for rural patients who must otherwise travel for hours to access behavioral health care.

The Omaha World-Herald ( ) reported that the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services released a report last week assessing the state’s behavioral health needs.

A 2015 study conducted by the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s, Center for Rural Health Research, found that in 2014 seventy-eight percent of Nebraska’s psychologists and nearly 85 percent of psychiatrists were practicing in metropolitan areas, which left 48 counties without a mental healthcare provider.

“We just aren’t going to see mental health professionals in all the rural areas — that’s the reality,” said Beth Baxter with Region 3 Behavioral Health Services, serving central and south-central Nebraska. “That means we’ve got to figure out how we can utilize technology to provide those services.”

The department’s deputy director, Linda Wittmuss, said data pulled from census statistics, studies, focus groups and surveys will inform the department’s strategy from 2017 to 2020.

According to Wittmuss with the use of technology the plan will reach Nebraskans who are hours away from behavioral healthcare.

For example, through telehealth, a patient could talk to a doctor on a screen for medication management consultations or follow-up therapy sessions through a webcam.

“We know we have to keep looking at new and efficient solutions,” she said. “But before we can reach those solutions we have to have access. That’s why we need telehealth.”

Dr. Joseph Evans, assistant clinical director of the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska, says telehealth has become a national movement.

“I think there is a bit of fear when it comes to using these new technologies, but that’s starting to change,” Evans said. “There are types of consultations that don’t necessarily need to be face to face.”

Information from: Omaha World-Herald,