The journey to become a psychiatrist had a lot of twists and turns for me. After graduating from medical school, I was convinced that I was going to be a surgeon, so I packed my bags and headed to Missouri for my internship year. However, I quickly discovered that I was unfulfilled and unhappy. Surgery was not my calling, and the moment that I acknowledged that fact was both humbling and cathartic. It was a moment that called for intense self-reflection and transparency, and, if I am to be completely honest, it was not a surprise. My medical school experience rotating through psychiatry was one of the best in all my four years of medical school training, so this felt like a natural progression for me.
Bringing Telepsychiatry to underserved populations
Only a few short months later, I found myself starting the first day of the rest of my life at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Immediately following adult, child, and adolescent psychiatry residency training, I began brick and mortar medicine at a private psychiatry hospital, where I served as the medical director of their Adolescent inpatient and Emergency Room services unit for seven years. I absolutely loved my patients, the thrill of acute medicine, and the follow through of caring for a patient and their family from the moment of crisis until they were stabilized and well. However, when the opportunity to practice telemedicine materialized, I realized that this was an opportunity to serve people who would otherwise have no access to appropriate medical care due to living in an underserved area. I was excited at the prospect of being available to multiple emergency rooms and psychiatric hospitals across Texas. Telemedicine also offered the work/life balance that I was really looking for in my career. As a mom to 3 kids, it was a remarkable gift to fully be available to both my patients and family on a daily basis.
Emotional connection helps bridge the distance
Over the past few years of my telemedicine journey, I have lovingly collaborated with the families of patients with severe dementia and evolving behavioral disturbances, counseled parents of children with critical mood dysregulation, and worked with law enforcement to provide a safe disposition for patients who were no longer able to safely care for themselves. Although it may seem to the unfamiliar eye that the medium of telemedicine puts a greater distance between the physician and her patient, my experience has been quite the opposite. I am able to connect with my patients emotionally in much the same manner as I would if we were physically in the same room together. I find it both humbling and sacred that my patients would feel safe enough to confide in me their deepest thoughts and allow themselves to be vulnerable to the extent that they would entrust me with their lives and the lives of their loved ones. I am truly fortunate to have a career and a platform that enables me to serve in such a universal and holistic way.
—Elizabeth Ucheoma-Cofield MD, Psychiatrist