Guest Column | June 19, 2017

The Role Of Telemedicine In Mental Health

Virtual Telehealth Doctor

By Lawrence Gleit, EVP & General Manager, Behavioral Health, MDLIVE

In a given year, one in five American adults is diagnosed with a mental health disorder. And more than half (56 percent) of the U.S. adults with a mental health condition do not receive proper treatment. While there are multiple reasons and issues keeping people from receiving proper treatment today, one variable leading to this statistic is access to quality care. Consider, for example:

Improving mental health in America is not a simple, one-time fix. It requires a re-thinking of how we define healthcare to include behavioral health, moving beyond the stigma so people feel comfortable seeking care, and the coming together of multiple stakeholders and experts to develop new ways to deliver that care.

While the industry works to address the issues that prevent widespread and comprehensive behavioral health services, many providers are looking to improve access to quality mental health care through telemedicine.

The Benefits Of Virtual Mental Health Programs

Data show virtual mental health counseling is at least as effective — and in some cases, more than — treating depression as traditional face-to-face. A University of Zurich study divided a group of 62 patients in half and found depression was eased in 53 percent of those given online therapy, compared to 50 percent who had in-person counseling. Three months after completing the study, 57 percent of online patients showed no signs of depression compared to 42 percent with conventional therapy (Journal of Affective Disorders, 2013).

Additionally, a four-year Johns Hopkins study that included close to 100,000 veterans found the number of days patients were hospitalized dropped by 25 percent if they chose online counseling. This is slightly higher than the number of hospital visits experienced by patients who used face-to-face counseling (Psychiatric Services, April 2012).

For providers and patients alike, in addition to the positive health effects, there are numerous benefits to virtual mental health programs.

  1. Ease and convenience: patients and providers simply need a computer, webcam, and broadband internet access.
  2. Increased access: patients who live in remote areas, who are housebound, who have trouble lining up childcare, or just have too much going on in their lives to make room for regular therapy sessions, now have a connection to mental healthcare.
  3. Fewer missed appointments: patients are less likely to run into problems when they can meet from wherever they are (MDLIVE’s virtual mental health offering has a no-show rate of 3.5 percent, significantly lower than the industry average of 30-40 percent).
  4. Reach new clients: providers who offer services virtually can expand their reach to new clients across their state, not just within their local area.
  5. Customize care: leveraging a virtual platform, providers are able to turn their focus to how care is delivered through appropriately-timed assessments and tracking trends and progress over time.

From The Patients’ Perspective

For patients, access to a mental health services provider can be life-changing. While benefits of virtual mental health services differ from patient to patient, they can include: ease, convenience, privacy, access and increased choice and options. The services they need fit into their lifestyle, rather than the other way around.

  • Paulette in Nipomo, CA: “I was able to look through profiles of therapists online until I found one that matched what I was looking for. Now I am able to get the support I need, from an individual who is understanding, non-judgmental and knows how to talk to me — whether I am at home or on vacation. Having consistent access to this kind of professional support has reduced my stress and anxiety levels, and given me a sense of calm.”
  • Mary in Palm Springs, CA: “I used to do traditional face-to-face therapy, and found the inconvenience of getting there became a huge driver of stress for me. Now, I am able to see a professional I trust — while I’m sitting in my office on my lunch break. Having such easy access to the right support is helping me break down the barriers that exist from a history of stigmatization and hiding.”

While telemedicine alone cannot fix all the challenges that exist today when it comes to comprehensive access to quality mental health services, it does get us one step closer. By bridging the gap between providers and patients — and removing barriers to things like location, transportation and convenience — the industry can focus on addressing the obstacles that continue to stand in the way of achieving treatment numbers closer 100 percent.