St. Luke’s Free Medical Clinic sees success through free psychiatric treatment

A tall, gray-haired, sorta-retired country doc with a pony tail.

That’s how Dr. Otis L. Baughman, the former dean and director of medical education at Spartanburg Medical Center, describes himself.

“That’s about as (nonthreatening) as you can get,” he said.

His approachable nature is just part of what allowed St. Luke’s Free Medical Clinic’s relatively new psychiatry program to grow into a thriving service for the facility and its patients.

Baughman started the program in January 2018, volunteering his time every other Tuesday. The demand quickly forced him to start seeing patients once a week.

He said offering free mental health treatment in the same facility patients meet with their general practitioner has also helped to reduce the stigma around mental illness and expand access.

In the roughly year and a half he’s been operating the program, Baughman has led close to 900 sessions. That’s roughly 10 percent of the clinic’s yearly visits.

“By June, the storms were really coming in and I had to go every week,” he said.

St. Luke’s Executive Director Patsy Whitney said the program has been a boon for the clinic.

Baughman said in his time practicing psychiatry at St. Luke’s, he’s found the mental health challenges many of his patients are grappling with stem from adverse childhood experiences. Often, they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and their condition has been misdiagnosed and improperly treated for the majority of their lives.

“There’s ways of managing that and stopping some of the terrors they experience in their dreams at night or when a car backfires and they dive under the desk,” he said.

St. Luke’s treats people at 150 percent of the poverty line and below, a population particularly at risk for adverse childhood experiences. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, children living in poverty are more likely to experience abuse and neglect, and the day-to-day stress of financial instability can have a significant impact on children, as well as adults.

While St. Luke’s has offered counseling for years, Whitney said having a medical doctor with extensive mental health experience and the ability to prescribe medicine has had a major impact.

“If you’re not healthy mentally, then you’re not going to feel like getting up and doing anything, and vice versa, so it’s great to have it working all together,” she said. “Most of our patients are going through so much, and a lot of them don’t even know that they need to talk about anything.”

After a decades-long medical career, Baughman said he’s experienced depression and burnout. His departure from full-time medical work in 2016 was prompted, in part, by his own struggles with mental health, he said, and for two years after, he struggled to find a way to practice medicine while maintaining his own well-being.

“I’m a product of burnout in medicine, as has been in the newspapers lately, and mine was very, very, very severe,” he said. “I lost all love and care about medicine and what I was doing as part of the burnout issues. I was fried (into) little pieces.”

He said he found an outlet and a way to reconnect to his love for medicine in his work at St. Luke’s, and looks at it as a form of therapy for him, as well as the patient.

“I’ve been providing care to patients for mental health but they’ve been my mental health treatment,” he said. “Through taking care of these dear, dear people here, I have restored my love in medicine and what I do.”

While he worked in family medicine and served as a medical educator while practicing medicine full time, he said mental health care has always been his passion, and he’s trained it to other physicians all over the world. He said the vast majority of mental health care is provided by primary care doctors, and he’s using his time at St. Luke’s as a platform to show others how to offer the treatment in a more effective way.

“I presented a model to the South Carolina Academy of Family Physicians two weeks ago at their state annual meeting,” he said. “It’s simply you take one half day out of your practice, and in that half day, you only see your mental health patients. I tried to share with the family physicians that that segment of your week will be more of a relief than a burden.”

Whitney said she’s grateful for the service Baughman offers the clinic.

“We’ve integrated it into the care here and it’s made such a difference,” she said.