Conemaugh adds psychiatrists to bolster behavioral health program

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Two new psychiatrists at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center will help boost the behavioral health program, which took a hit last year with the departure of several physicians.

Dr. Umesh Rao Chakunta joined the Conemaugh Physicians Group – Behavioral Health office in July, specializing in adult and geriatric patients.

His arrival allowed Memorial to return its geriatric behavioral unit to full capacity of 13 beds, Memorial Chief Medical Officer Dr. Susan Williams said.

“We are very pleased to have Dr. Chakunta come here,” Williams said. “He has a very strong clinical background, not only in adult psychiatry, but also in geriatric psychiatry.”

A second psychiatrist specializing in adult patients will join the staff in a few weeks, and hospital leaders are “in discussions” with a child-adolescent psychiatrist, Williams said.

“It’s a wonderful start, but we plan to continue to expand our coverage,” she said, adding that leaders would like to bring in a second child-adolescent psychiatrist.

It will take at least one full-time specialist to reopen Aloysia Hall, Memorial’s child and adolescent behavioral health unit. The inpatient program closed in January 2016 after a full-time child psychiatrist left the area. An adult psychiatrist left shortly after that, leaving the hospital to rely on temporary employees, known as locum tenens.

The geriatric inpatient unit was reduced to 10 beds.

“There is a national shortage of psychiatrists, and unfortunately we are feeling that,” Williams said.

Chakunta is a 2002 graduate of Bharati Vidyapeeth’s Medical College in Pune, India. He has been in the United States since 2003, when he continued his education, earning a master’s degree in health care administration at the University of New Haven in Connecticut and going on to a psychiatry residency at the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls.

He completed a fellowship in geriatric psychiatry at the former Mount Sinai School of Medicine, now the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York.

He chose behavioral health as a specialty while working in psychiatric research the Yale University School of Medicine.

“I became very comfortable dealing with the mental health community and felt this was an area where I could truly make a difference,” Chakunta said.

“So many people struggle with mental illness, people you see every day and don’t realize what they are going through. I have seen a great deal of success in helping these people and I love that I can help make a difference in their lives.”

Psychiatrists usually work closely with psychologists and counselors to help people overcome their mental health issues, he said.

The psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can oversee medication management and case management for each patient.

Counselors and psychologists spend time helping patients learn new coping skills and finding underlying issues.

“Medication can help a person improve temporarily,” Chakunta said.

“Psychologists help a person heal from the inside. That’s the core difference.”

Despite advances in care and public education efforts, there still is a stigma associated with behavioral health services, Chakunta said.

“Some people see it as a character flaw,” he said, noting mental health issues are medical conditions that can be managed.

“The brain is firmly attached to the body,” Chakunta said. “If anything happens in the brain, it’s just as important a medical problem as it is in the rest of the body.

“We have to start looking at it that way.”

Geriatric psychiatry requires expertise in medication dosage and interaction, Chakunta said.

“The population is getting older,” Chakunta said. “The need for geriatric psychiatry will only increase in the future.”