Guest Column | April 17, 2019

Virtual Care: An Rx For Addressing Mental Health Struggles

By Ray Costantini,

Will EHRs Be The Bridge To Integrated Care?

Managing mental health issues are hard, for patients and for over-burdened providers. Although the stigma of mental and emotional health issues are beginning to subside, even those ready to get help encounter discouraging roadblocks: a lack of timely appointments because of a shortage of doctors, the high cost of care, the lack of insurance coverage for mental health services and the challenging emotional burden of acting on the symptoms of depression.

What people often don’t realize is that there’s another option: virtual mental health services. Easily accessible and much less expensive than in-person visits, online care enables patients to access the resources they need to get help and address their challenges. Virtual services also allow people to get help for their mental health concerns from the privacy of their own home. That often makes taking action easier and has been shown to help them be more open and honest about what they're experiencing, compared to a face-to-face with a provider.

The Need Is Great

It’s tragic that mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults aged 18-44, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

The shortage of qualified mental health professionals makes the problem even worse. There are only about 28,000 psychiatrists in active practice in the U.S. (just one per 12,000 people), according to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM). And the majority of them practice in California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida. Across the U.S., 77 percent of counties have reported a severe deficiency of psychiatrists, according to a Merritt Hawkins report. AJPM backs this up, noting that 65 percent of non-metropolitan counties don’t have any psychiatrist, and almost half don’t have a psychologist.

The Role Of Internet-Based Services

Providing virtual healthcare via the internet or online portals isn't new. Enterprising medical practices and specialists have leveraged telehealth to varying extents to provide care to their patients, no matter where they reside. However, the role of telehealth has expanded over the years, offering effective alternatives for addressing acute illnesses and managing chronic diseases through devices, like home computers, tablets and cell phones, that are an important part of consumers’ daily lives.

Online offerings for mental healthcare are expanding too, with the introduction of internet-based diagnosis, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other services. Benefits of virtual mental healthcare include:

  • Increasing Access to Care - Virtual care is available 24x7, 365 days of the year. Patients don’t need to wait days or even weeks for a scheduled appointment any more. And they don’t have to miss work, since they can get care any time they want.
  • Offering More Time and Attention - Because providers' schedules are frequently overbooked, patients only get their attention for only a few minutes, and can feel rushed to digest all the information they're presented or be too intimidated to ask questions because they’re worried about inconveniencing the doctor. Online platforms enable patients to proceed at their own pace, giving them a chance to review information without being embarrassed about taking the physician’s time to ensure they fully understand.
  • Saving Time and Money - Not only is virtual care more affordable, people don’t have to lose pay by having to take time off for in-person visits or travel a long way. It’s also better for employers, since unmanaged mental health takes a brutal toll through both absenteeism and presenteeism.
  • Insurance Coverage - More payers are now reimbursing providers for virtual care. For example, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) said late last year that it is expanding opportunities to cover mental health treatments under Medicaid and encouraging states to improve community-based mental health services.
  • Reducing Stigma and Emotional barriers - Patients can seek care in the privacy of their own home without informing employers or family members. The comfortable environment often empowers them to share more information that can lead to a better diagnosis and faster time to treatment. It also enables them to become more engaged in their own care, seeking providers and solutions that best meet their individual needs.

Can Telehealth Bridge The Care Gap In Mental Health?

Many providers and payers think so. Practices are increasingly adding virtual mental health services to their offerings, and insurers are ramping up their support of telehealth initiatives.

Early entrants in virtual care programs have shown how to move past roadblocks by enabling patients to get care in a way that is comfortable, convenient, and accessible. The most successful ones have enabled patients to access care discreetly, securely and on their own terms, without the waits for appointments, long drives and other factors resulting from the shortage of mental health providers nationwide--issues video visits alone haven’t solved.

As these telehealth programs continue to expand, they will give those who struggle with depression, anxiety and other issues an effective way seek treatment, and in the process benefit society by address our nation's growing mental health epidemic.