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Need for virtual mental health services skyrockets during COVID-19 pandemic

The healthcare industry has been learning about virtual mental health services for quite some time. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, provided a crash course in this care delivery mode. Rob Havasy, Managing Director, Personal Connected Health Alliance, and Jamey Edwards, CEO, Cloudbreak Health, recently met with Jonah Comstock, Editor-in-Chief, HIMSS Media, to discuss how the industry coped with the pandemic-induced spike in demand for virtual mental health services and what providers can expect moving forward.

Although demand soared during the pandemic, interest in virtual mental health services has been increasing for some time. “What most people don’t realize is that telepsychiatry and telemental health services were in pretty high demand, pre-COVID. And, what COVID really did was catalyze the adoption of those services,” Edwards said during a recent HIMSS TV interview conducted as part of a series on the virtual care paradigm.

The pandemic created “an increased demand for mental health services when the supply of psychiatrists wasn’t increasing. So digital health was one of the only ways to really drive more access and help solve what was a supply and demand imbalance,” Edwards added.

As a result, virtual mental health services became the norm and providers learned a variety of lessons that could help them effectively deliver virtual mental healthcare in the future. What follows is a snapshot from two industry experts about how the future of mental health services is shaping up in the digital realm.

  1. Younger patients are more likely to embrace a variety of virtual tools. “Different age groups seem to prefer different modalities and different ways of interacting with any clinician, but particularly in the behavioral health space. It basically breaks down to the younger you are, the more likely you are to prefer to use voice communication or chat-based communication or some other form of a virtual visit. It doesn’t always have to be video,” Havasy said.
  1. Virtual mental healthcare can help patients address problems as they unfold. Instead of trying to remember what happened a week ago and talking about it during a scheduled session, patients can communicate virtually with providers when an issue comes up. Therapists can immediately address the problem via chat-based or guided virtual tools or patients can “record what happened in the moment so it can be brought back up when they do have a face-to-face encounter” with providers, Havasy said.
  1. Providers need an escalation strategy. “Just like the digital front door would be the first step to accessing a healthcare system, the same is true in mental health, where you might be able to start off with a chat or a chatbot … but you can then escalate to a higher level of care” such as a virtual video visit and then an in-person visit, Edwards said.
  1. Virtual care can help destigmatize mental health. “A lot of people feel more comfortable engaging with a provider when they don’t have to go into an office. They don’t have be seen going into that building,” Havasy pointed out.
  1. Some populations are being shut out of virtual mental healthcare. “What we saw during COVID was a dramatic increase in things like anxiety and depression. We saw a dramatic increase in drug-related deaths and the opioid epidemic getting worse. The thing that we have to be conscious of is a lot of times those types of issues affect the underserved,” Edwards said.

Unfortunately, there is a digital divide, as many members of underserved populations “don’t have broadband access, or they don’t have a smartphone. … [So, we need to] make sure that we are promoting health equity, when it comes to things like mental health,” Edwards concluded.

To watch the entire interview with Havasy and Edwards and learn how mental health services will fit into the virtual care paradigm of tomorrow, visit HIMSS TV/Ontrak.

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