This week kicks off the American Telemedicine Association’s first Telehealth Awareness Week. The theme of the virtual event is “Telehealth is Health” — a sentiment that rings true now more than ever.
Telehealth adoption has skyrocketed over the past year-plus and will undoubtedly become a permanent fixture in healthcare. In a March 2021 survey of Americans, 61% of people had tried a telehealth appointment. And between 2019 and 2020, provider visits nationwide delivered via telehealth jumped from 0.3% to 23.6%. Interestingly, the care specialty that grew in telehealth adoption the most, according to a McKinsey & Company report, was psychiatry.
During the COVID-19 crisis, a larger average share of adults spoke up about needing help with their mental health: 4 in 10 adults reported anxiety or depressive disorder, an increase from 1 in 10 in the year prior. While the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded an underlying national mental health crisis, it surfaced another significant challenge: a shortage of mental health specialists who are available to provide care. Behavioral health clinicians can only meet 27% of patient needs across the U.S.
This “perfect storm” of limited supply and increased demand has placed a substantial and untenable strain on mental health clinicians. However, it’s not only therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists who are shouldering the toll of the high demand for mental healthcare. Primary care providers (PCPs) are feeling it too.
As a confidant and trusted advisor, PCPs are frequently the first point of contact when patients seek mental health help. Serving as the “medical home” for a patient, PCPs play an important role in addressing both physical and mental health care needs by bringing in behavioral care specialists. But with the rising needs among patients and short supply among professionals, finding the right specialist for a patient is challenging.
Two-thirds of primary care physicians report having trouble getting psychiatric services for patients. It can take several weeks or months for a patient to be seen by a local mental healthcare professional. Relying on referrals to in-person professionals presents a challenge as patients often sit on long waitlists and symptoms worsen. Additionally, it also contributes to keeping mental and physical health siloed, which goes against the numerous studies that have shown that outcomes improve when the two are aligned.
Fortunately, there is a way to achieve holistic, coordinated care: telehealth.
At the intersection of primary care and behavioral health services is the perfect opportunity for telebehavioral care. As an effective alternative to referrals for in-person care, PCPs can refer a patient to a virtual behavioral health provider. In comparison to a referral to a local behavioral health specialist, a patient can see a virtual behavioral health specialist much sooner — in hours or days instead of weeks or months. The remote modality also eliminates geographical barriers, delivering patients a wider selection of mental health providers tailored to their mental health challenges.
Beyond improving referral follow-through and care coordination, many PCPs are bringing telebehavioral care in-house through collaborative care models. Breaking traditional siloes, the collaborative care approach integrates a behavioral health care manager at the practice level to identify and treat patients with mental health challenges. Bringing these professionals in via telehealth widens access not only for the PCPs but also for patients, as the care managers can virtually tap into a wider array of specialists, such as psychiatrists or professionals with condition-specific skills. Telebehavioral care models have been proven to reduce symptoms, and ultimately help improve overall patient health, by providing PCPs with the support needed and addressing the gap between high demand and low supply in the nation’s mental health crisis.
The benefits of telehealth at this point can’t be denied. But the benefits of telebehavioral health can’t be ignored. As we all settle into the new normal of healthcare, we must ensure that telehealth’s place in behavioral care is championed. It expands access. It helps our PCPs. It works for patients. And it’s absolutely critical to overcoming our nation’s mental health crisis in the era of COVID-19 and beyond.