Telehealth: A Promising Alternative to the Growing Demand for In-Person Mental Healthcare

August 5, 2020
Author: Stacy Sims
Telehealth A Promising Alternative to the Growing Demand for In-Person Mental Healthcare

The current events of our world are taking a toll not only on our physical health but also on our mental health and well-being. In a recent KFF poll, nearly half (45%) of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over COVID-19.

Organizations like The Campaign to Change Direction promote the benefits of frequent “checkups” to help support emotional well-being. Yet, accessing healthcare has been challenging during this time. From our previous research, we know that almost two-thirds of consumers have had to delay or postpone healthcare due to COVID-19.

However, our recent self-funded study of 1,381 consumers age 18 and older suggests that telehealth may be an excellent alternative to in-person care for mental health support. Our research, conducted from May 20 to June 1, 2020, shows that the proportion of new telehealth users who have consulted a mental health provider during the pandemic is significantly higher (21%) compared to regular users of telehealth (12%).

Promoting the benefits of ongoing mental healthcare, which can be easily accessed through telehealth, may be key in managing and meeting an uptick in need for mental healthcare and the well-being of the public as we continue to navigate these stressful and trying times.

Why Telehealth for Mental Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States pre-pandemic:

  • More than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their life.
  • One in five Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.
  • One in five children currently or at some point in their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness.
  • One in twenty-five Americans lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.

Although these illnesses are prevalent, a long list of barriers prevent people from receiving the care they need. The Rural Health Information Hub identifies some of the biggest barriers as shame of having a mental disorder, lack of anonymity, affordability, difficulty accessing care and shortage of mental healthcare workers.

Given this backdrop coupled with the elevated need for mental healthcare during the pandemic, it’s critical that society finds ways to make it easier for trained mental health providers to offer quality care—and for patients to access that care.

Telehealth provides a viable way to meet the mental healthcare challenge by:

  • Eliminating the face-to-face barrier sometimes created by the stigma of discussing mental health concerns
  • Increasing access to mental healthcare in rural communities where psychologists may not be readily available or patients don’t have the means of transportation to reach an office
  • Protecting the privacy of individuals who may not want to be seen walking into a mental healthcare facility

More Patients Willing to Use Telehealth

As lockdowns around the world rise and fall—and then rise again—more patients needing treatment for mental illness have been willing to give telehealth a try. According to our research, counseling (individual, group, marital, etc.) at 13%, and  mental health (depression, anxiety, etc.) at 12% are among the most commonly mentioned healthcare needs for consumers new to telehealth.

Interest in Telehealth Mental Health Services

Among consumers who indicate they are unlikely to use telehealth in the future, preference for face-to-face care, concerns over quality of telehealth care, and cost of service are the primary barriers. That said, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution and does not fix some of the issues with which the industry continues to struggle. For example, inadequate access to insurance coverage and technology will continue to play a significant role in where mental healthcare falls short.

The Sustainability Question

In order to allow providers to ramp up their telehealth offerings quickly, the government eased several restrictions, including allowing patients to connect from home, relaxing patient privacy rules, and allowing telehealth visits to be reimbursed comparably to in-person visits. The government also relaxed medical licensee requirements to allow providers to practice across state lines as well as allowed practices to waive co-pays for telehealth services.

As we’ve seen from our research, the easing of restrictions has accelerated the rollout and adoption of telehealth, where some providers have been trying for years to get their programs up and running. And while the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) expects that some of the measures put in place will become permanent, it remains to be seen whether more stringent guidelines will be reinstated.

Recommendations

Demonstrate support for mental healthcare. Providers should stress their support for ongoing mental healthcare and understanding of the increasing need in communities.

Communicate the benefits of telehealth. Providers should promote the idyllic nature of telehealth for mental healthcare needs. Here’s how:

  • Call attention to the idea that in-person assessments or appointments are not required to diagnose a condition or issue
  • Discuss the potential for telehealth to reduce the anxiety some feel over beginning discussions about mental health
  • Highlight the ability for patients to get help in the privacy of their own home or space
  • Emphasize the increased access to care in communities where this was a challenge even pre-COVID-19

Strategic Summary

Telehealth visits may reduce the barriers providers and patients face when it comes to providing routine and accessible mental healthcare. Access to ongoing mental healthcare via telehealth could be a step in the right direction toward better long-term mental health outcomes.

However, the success of using telehealth for mental healthcare depends on a number of factors, including whether the easing of government restrictions will continue and whether consumers’ willingness to use telehealth for these services continues. Keeping this model sustainable hinges on the ability of providers to recognize and support society’s need for this type of care, as well as educate patients, policymakers and other stakeholders about the benefits of using telehealth for their mental healthcare needs.

If you need help developing your brand’s message around the benefits of telehealth for mental healthcare, send us a note.

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Stacy Sims, Director
Stacy Sims
Director

Stacy is a director in the Health division at Escalent. As the health systems lead, she brings more than a decade of quantitative and qualitative research experience to the table—with an emphasis on consumer brand, experience, segmentation and new product development. Stacy lives in Livonia, MI and loves hot yoga, a full glass of wine and laughs often at the hilarious antics of her three sassy children (who are evidence that karma is the real deal). She and her husband are expanding their family this summer… patiently awaiting the arrival of their new family dog.