The COVID-19 pandemic has upgraded many cherished assumptions. More people work from home than ever before, and we’ve seen first-hand that it’s possible to do work, get healthcare, and maintain relationships from a distance if you have the right technology. This shift is on full display in the rapid swing toward virtual healthcare, especially in mental health.
For a decade, the number of people using telehealth mental health services has been slowly but steadily climbing. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, that slow climb became a race, with rapidly expanding telehealth options to meet a stunning increase in demand. By 2021, more than half of Americans said they would use telepsychiatry services, with 66% of young adults willing to give telehealth a try. At the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine, we think the trend toward telehealth psychiatry is a great thing for patients, providers, and communities. Here’s why.
Reduced Stigma, Improved Access
Mental illness is not a personal choice or moral failure. Yet many discussions of mental health continue to reference mental health struggles as fundamentally different and separate from physical health. No wonder people struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health diagnoses feel shame and often desire to keep their diagnosis secret. Mental health stigma hurts everyone. It correlates with decreased treatment-seeking behavior, which allows mental illness to get worse. This drives higher costs, worse outcomes, and a mental health crisis.
Telehealth services can play a key role in ending mental health stigma. No longer does a person have to drive to a psychiatrist, wait in a waiting room, struggle with fears of seeing someone they know, or grapple with the discomfort of sitting in a psychiatrist’s office for the first time. Instead, they can seek care from the comfort of their home, in total privacy. That means less stigma, and perhaps an increased willingness to seek and stick with care.
Taking the Stress out of Mental Health Care
For many mental health consumers, the time it takes to attend an appointment is just a small fraction of the total time commitment. They may have to drive across town, take time off of work, fight traffic, or get dressed to leave a home office. For an hour-long appointment, this can easily end up requiring 2-3 hours of time. For people struggling with some of the most common mental health diagnoses—depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other executive dysfunction, phobias, and trouble with home relationships or a job—the prospect can be daunting.
Seeking care shouldn’t be stressful. But with traditional mental health, by the time a person gets to their provider’s office, they’ve already run through a veritable obstacle course of challenges and may be so stressed they can’t think clearly about their needs or session goals.
With telehealth services, the only time required is the time an appointment takes. This makes it easier for a person to budget the exact amount of time they’ll need for care. And it ensures the busiest, highest stress people have equal access to mental health care.
Telehealth services can reduce the costs of providing care, potentially eliminating the need for expensive rents and offices. They also help remove some of the hidden cost barriers for consumers. Parents, for example, may have to hire a childcare provider not just for an hour-long appointment but for the commute both ways. Workers must take time off of work, potentially missing out on income or making up work time later. There’s the cost of fuel, which is rapidly rising already, and small costs like stopping for a snack on the way home in anticipation of a long commute.
Some providers charge a lower rate for telehealth services because these services cost them less to provide. And there’s no evidence that telemental health care works less well than other services. Indeed, for people with cost, stigma, and logistical barriers, telemental health may actually be a more effective option that produces less stress.
A Better Experience for Providers
Providers, too, often juggle hidden barriers to seeing patients—long commutes, managing their own family logistics, costly lunch breaks, and downtime between clients. When seeing a patient requires simple logging in from a secure location, they can relax. And they may gain more control over their schedule. The overall medical no-show rate for office visits dropped from about a third to 7.5% during the COVID-19 shift to telehealth. This means providers can schedule more patients and earn more money, often while charging less. Better work-life balance and lower stress to providers can translate into better care for the people they serve.
Telehealth services offer a flexible approach to healthcare, and it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Providers can see patients on some days, then embrace virtual care on other days. Telehealth may also increase options for the most challenging clients. Providers have long struggled with managing aggressive clients and those who make threats. With telehealth services, providers can more safely serve these clients from a distance, in a setting where the client may feel more comfortable and less agitated.
Improved Telehealth Platforms
In the early days of telehealth, connections were often bad, and there were serious privacy concerns. COVID-19 has forced innovation and brought telehealth mental health services firmly into the mainstream. Platforms are better, connections are stronger, and providers have learned how to make telehealth HIPAA compliant. That equates to a better experience for consumers and providers, and the data proves it. Patients report both high satisfaction with telehealth services, and high trust in the platforms themselves.
At the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine, we view telehealth as a tremendous advancement in the field and a win for all involved. In our practice, this modality is here to stay.
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