How Telehealth Can Deliver Better Mental Healthcare

Guest post by Lee Horner, president, Stratus Video.

Lee Horner
Lee Horner

One of the largest barriers of delivering mental healthcare is the critical shortage of mental health professionals across the country, despite the significant prevalence and impact of mental health conditions. The National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Institute of Mental Health report that 1 in 5 Americans live with a mental health condition and more than half of American adults with mental illness did not receive treatment in 2016. The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration estimates an additional 70,000 mental healthcare providers are needed by 2025 to meet the expected growth in demand. In Chicago alone, patients may wait upwards of 10 months for a psychiatrist appointment.

Timely and quality behavioral healthcare is essential for improving patient mental health outcomes and increasing provider satisfaction. Telehealth is emerging as a viable approach to traditional on-site care methods, as it can rapidly improve the delivery of care by effectively addressing patient needs while reconciling the workforce gap. Specifically, telehealth can allow for immediate consultation (especially crucial in time-sensitive situations), increased treatment capacity and collaboration across the continuum of care, and improved outcomes (especially by allowing patients to receive care in the comfort of their own home).

Increased Access to Care
In a given year, approximately one in 25 adults in the U.S. experiences a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with, or limits, one or more major life activities according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The American Journal of Psychiatry reported that untreated mental illness is estimated to cost approximately $100 billion annually in lost productivity.

Patients can benefit from providers who use video-based technology to conduct “virtual consults” when providing an initial diagnosis, as well as making recommendations for admission, treatment, transfer, or discharge. Additionally, for ongoing treatment, video offers patients a way to participate in ongoing care and support via “virtual visits” with mental healthcare providers. Convenient access to care can help patients who may avoid seeking initial mental healthcare and/or ongoing treatment as some patients may unfortunately avoid visiting a nearby mental health clinic or provider for a needed diagnosis if they are wary of public recognition and social disapproval. Patients might also not adhere to scheduled follow-up appointments if visits to these “known” mental health clinics in one’s community are required.   With telehealth, patients can remain comfortably at home and confidentially receive the care they need.

“No-shows” are also common in mental healthcare, and often the result of patients not being able to take time off from work and/or arrange for reliable transportation to appointments. In this way telehealth allows patients, along with parents or caregivers, to access care from the comfort of their home while limiting the chance of missing school or work.

Telehealth also allow mental health providers to “see” the patient’s day-to-day environment – the patient’s own home and lifestyle. In turn, patients may feel more comfortable discussing their condition and disclosing details over a video screen from their personal environment vs. a traditional office setting.

Expanded Network of Mental Health Professionals
Providers can also use telehealth to extend their reach beyond traditional healthcare settings. The imbalance of available mental health providers vs. mental health sufferers means that patients can face extensive wait times for initial consults and diagnoses as well as extended wait times between appointments for follow-up care.

With video-based technology, a hospital’s medical staff can quickly access remote mental specialists and facilitate a virtual consult between offsite specialists and patients. Instead of keeping a patient waiting hours in the Emergency Department or another floor for an in-person consult, a mental health provider can deliver a timely virtual consult and provide guidance as to whether a hospital admission or transport to another facility is needed.

Additionally, Providers can also use video to extend their reach outside of their respective community. Rural areas face some of the biggest deficits in terms of available mental health providers.  According to the patient advocacy group Mental Health America, states in the south and the west have the highest rates of mental illness and the lowest rates of access to care. When mental health providers are not readily available in-person, video-based technology give patients on-demand access to a greater pool of providers who can support their care — regardless of distance between providers and patients.

Telehealth also provides mental health professionals with greater flexibility and availability in providing virtual consults around the clock and across geographical regions. Additionally, it provides mental health professionals a way to drive better collaboration amongst the broader care team across the care continuum. Communication can be maintained with the appropriate care team members (including the PCP, a pharmacist, a coordinator from the next care facility, etc.) to ensure the patient’s overall health needs are regularly discussed and addressed during the transition of care – without requiring care team members to drive to/from meetings at different locations and facilities.

Removing the geographic barrier between patients and mental health providers helps patients get access to the care and expertise they need when they need it most.  Being able to facilitate virtual consults and virtual visits will allow mental health providers to help patients access timely, quality care – improving patient outcomes and provider satisfaction. Video-based technology will continue to evolve as an impactful way of delivering healthcare.

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