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.
New applications of telehealth that enhance existing provider-to-provider communications are revealing a new way for healthcare organizations to ensure patient care remains in-network. As hospital M&A activity accelerates and organizations strive to glean the most value from their investments in technology and human resources, telehealth is recognized for its role in keeping communications and care in-network.
Telehealth is increasingly being leveraged to offer providers immediate in-network specialist expertise and to reduce ad hoc out-of-network referrals. These kinds of applications make the in-network choice convenient for providers and patients while driving increased patient engagement and more integrated care across the broader care team.
Providers are seeing that telehealth applications can be complementary – instead of disruptive – to their workflows and provide them with a new approach to practicing medicine via technology.
Immediate Communications with Colleagues
Video-based technology can help providers optimize their current workflows by facilitating faster and more flexible consults with on-demand access to in-network specialists. A provider’s network of experts can be built into the technology, which enables a provider to immediately reach the designated, first available specialist for answers. Instead of wasting valuable seconds and minutes looking for the names and contact information for specialists, providers can use telehealth to expedite provider-to-provider interactions which accomplish the critical objectives of doing what is both right and timely for the patient’s situation.
For example, a provider may be examining a patient and realize that the patient’s condition requires specialist expertise. With telehealth, the provider can immediately reach out to an in-network specialist. The specialist accepts the virtual consult request, from anywhere and on any device. During the virtual consult, the specialist can evaluate the patient and communicate the appropriate next steps. All stakeholders – the provider, the specialist, and the patient – benefit from the immediacy, efficiency, and effectiveness of a virtual consult conducted in real time.
The broader healthcare organization (whether a medical practice, a hospital, or a health system) will benefit from an increase in in-network referrals. By leveraging the organization’s network to drive better patient outcomes faster, providers can deliver lasting value for the healthcare organization and enhance its overall reputation.
Increased Patient Engagement
Technology can also help providers optimize their current follow-up processes and easily check in with patients after a hospital stay or outpatient procedure. Providers can use telehealth to offer patients appropriate follow-up care at their own home via video. This allows providers (or providers’ in-network resources) to reach out to patients based on those patients’ preferred contact methods (e.g., email or text) and languages (e.g., Spanish, German, etc.) to remind them of their upcoming video visits. The result is increased patient engagement in their ongoing treatment plan. Travel time, related transportation expenses and appointment no-shows are minimized due to this efficient method of follow-up care.
For example, a provider can facilitate a virtual visit with a patient to ensure understanding and adherence. During a virtual visit, the provider (or related in-network care team members) can evaluate the patient’s progress, answer questions in real time, provide patient education, and re-emphasize the treatment plan – all while the patient stays comfortably at home and the provider remains conveniently in the office. All stakeholders – the provider, the care management team members, and the patient – benefit from timely conversations which can drive better adherence and overall outcomes.
Many healthcare organizations refer to the at-home, at-risk patients as the “sickest of the sick.” Unfortunately, these patients may receive inadequate care and attention after being discharged and often rely on emergency medical services and/or the ED to answer questions and provide care in non-emergency situations. The model for treating these patients and attempting to keep them at-home (and not back in the hospital) has not changed substantially in decades. In an attempt to minimize re-admissions, hospitals may schedule case managers and/or nurses to physically visit these patients at-home in an effort to help the patients stay on track with their adherence.
However, this continuum of care model is not sustainable. The budget and resourcing implications are significant when most of the staff’s time is spent behind the wheel vs. in front of the patient. Significant opportunities exist for telehealth solutions to bring the care closer to the patient — at a more convenient and cost-effective manner for all involved.
Why Reducing Readmissions Matters From the patients’ perspective, returning to the ED and potentially being re-admitted is disruptive and stressful for patients and family. Patients may be put at an additional risk for hospital-acquired infections and complication. Returning to the hospital can also lower the rate of patient satisfaction and weaken overall outcomes.
From the perspectives of health systems and health plans, readmissions are costly. Since the introduction of HRRP (Hospital Readmission Reduction Program), hospitals that exceeded the national average of readmissions for specific conditions (within the 30-day window) have been penalized by a reduction of payments across all of their Medicare admissions. More than half of hospitals in the HRRP program were penalized the past five years, resulting in $528 million in withheld Medicare payments. Re-admissions can also negatively impact measures in Hospital Compare data, levels of provider satisfaction and the health system’s overall reputation in the community it serves. Re-admissions cost more than $26 billion annually but $17 billion is considered avoidable.
What Happens Today Keeping at-risk patients at-home is critical to reducing re-admissions and the associated consequences. Typical discharge programs with in-person appointment schedules often fail the at-home, at-risk patient, the providers, and the healthcare system by insufficiently engaging the patient at the point of discharge and upon returning home. The rates of patients being readmitted are significant:
Nearly 20 percent Medicare patients are readmitted within 30 days.
34 percent of Medicare patients are readmitted within 90 days and 56 percent within 1 year.
64 percent received no post-hospital care between discharge and readmission.
What happens in-hospital and at-home which leads to this situation? In-hospital experiences can adversely affect health and contribute to substantial impairments during the early recovery period, an inability to fend off disease, and simple mental error. As a result, patients may leave the hospital deprived of sleep, experiencing pain and discomfort, without sufficient nourishment, and with medications which may alter cognition and physical function.
When a patient is discharged, the patient may continue to face physical, emotional and even financial issues, depending on one’s condition, health history and home environment. A patient may be discharged without adequate instructions and information for self-care and follow-up. The patient may be provided with comprehensive verbal instructions but quickly forget the detailed instruction. Written instructions may be provided to the patient but the patient may fail to keep the information handy and/or share the information with family/friends serving as caregivers. Internalizing the discharge program and being able to practice self-care may also be negatively impacted by a patient’s level of English proficiency, health literacy, socio-economic status, gender and cultural background.