Northern Pines Mental Health Center’s refurbished computer initiative extends the life of its used equipment while providing a lifeline to its clients.

“When the coronavirus thing first hit, we just had like the perfect matchup because we had a large stack of equipment that we had phased out that gets used daily,” said David Gohl, director of information technology at Northern Pines Mental Health Center.

Northern Pines is offering the computers and tablets at no cost to those undergoing treatment at Northern Pines and who are in financial need for online telehealth (or videoconferencing) visits.

David Gohl is director of information technology at Northern Pines Mental Health Center.
David Gohl is director of information technology at Northern Pines Mental Health Center.

“When this whole coronavirus thing hit, the need for mental health services actually increased while the ability to get services decreased, so we were looking to fix that,” Gohl said of the donation.

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Gohl said about 100 families the regional mental health provider deals with had no internet-capable device, such as a computer with a webcam, that would allow telehealth visits. Telehealth visits allow therapists to videoconference with their patients while social distancing.

“We were able to refurbish and repurpose a lot of those computers,” Gohl said of the Northern Pines equipment. “The project is ongoing and we will try to provide them to those with financial need as long as we are able.”

Ten tablets with cellular internet and 90 refurbished computers were distributed by the health care provider among 100 families served by Northern Pines, which has an office on Northwest Fifth Street.

“We don’t lock down the equipment so that they can’t use it for their doctors and stuff, too, so they could have all their appointments on the equipment that we provided,” Gohl said.

Northern Pines is a comprehensive community mental health center that was established in 1964, with a six-county service area in Central Minnesota that includes Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties.

“In Brainerd, we have an outpatient office where you can get counseling. We also have a crisis bed ... where acute mental health emergencies might go there. We have a mobile crisis outreach team 24/7,” he said. “We have a lot of things going on in Brainerd.”

The 3-year-old Northern Pines computers are Ultrabooks, a classification of laptops that may omit traditional features such as optical disc drives and Ethernet ports due to their limited size.

“We can do telehealth over them. They have cameras, they have microphones. It’s like your basic laptop, but it's a pretty good quality one because our staff and others are on the road every day with this equipment, so it’s got to be very robust, it’s got to last a while,” Gohl said.

Gohl said those who receive a laptop can keep it even after ending treatment with Northern Pines, which provides reduced or no-fee services based on its sliding fee scale.

“They’re getting requested faster than we can supply them right now,” he said. “At Northern Pines, we really strive to be proactive to meet the needs of our community.”

Northern Pines is dedicated to providing appropriate clinical mental health care along with preventive, educational and supportive programs throughout central Minnesota even during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The whole point of the (refurbished computer initiative) program is to remove the technology barrier and allow clients to continue to receive telehealth services remotely,” said Gohl, who is part of an information technology team that includes Nick Benedett and Gordon Vossen.

Northern Pines is offering a hybrid approach to services, including telehealth, and limited in-person services with masks and distancing. But when risks associated with COVID-19 increase, services may be primarily offered via telehealth to promote client and staff safety.

“This is part of that stopgap solution, this is part of maintaining services for clients that need them the most at a time when it’s very hard to deliver them, especially in person,” Gohl said of the refurbished computer initiative.

Northern Pines is a private, nonprofit agency and uses many different payer sources including private insurance, Medical Assistance, Medicare, grants, community funds, veterans’ benefits and individualized payment plans.

“We’ve had people that are just over the moon that they were able to continue seeing their therapist,” Gohl said of the used equipment. “It’s had a very good reception among clients and among our therapists who have been just ecstatic to be able to continue providing services.”

Gohl said he is also encouraged by the efforts of others in the community during the pandemic.

“We’ve worked with schools so that the school-supplied Chromebooks could be used for telehealth at Northern Pines. CTC has internet hotspots in the community. … It’s been very uplifting to see that, you know, we’re all pushing in the same direction,” Gohl said.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.