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 dealt with the pandemic-induced spike in demand for virtual, mental health services and what suppliers can expect to move forward.

Although demand soared throughout 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 fairly high demand, pre-COVID. And, what COVID actually did was to catalyze the adoption of those services, Edwards said during a recent HIMSS TV interview conducted as part of a series on the digital care paradigm.

The pandemic created “an increased need for mental health services once the supply of psychiatrists wasn’t growing. So digital health was one of the only ways to truly drive more accessibility and help resolve 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 health care 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 appear 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 should prefer to use voice communication or chat-based communicating or some other form of a virtual trip. It doesn’t always have to be video,” Havasy stated.
  1. Virtual mental healthcare can help patients address problems as they unfold. Rather than trying to remember what happened a week ago and talking about it during a scheduled session, patients can communicate virtually with suppliers when an issue arises. Therapists can immediately deal with the issue through chat-based or guided virtual tools or patients can “record what occurred in the moment so it can be brought back up when they have a face-to-face experience ” with providers, Havasy stated.
  1. Providers need an escalation strategy. “Just enjoy the digital front door would be the first step to accessing a healthcare system, the same is true in mental health, where you may have the ability to start off with a chat or a chatbot … however you can then escalate to a higher level of maintenance ” such as a digital video trip and then an on-the-go trip, Edwards said.
  1. Virtual care can help destigmatize mental health. “ a good deal of people feel more comfortable engaging with a provider when they don’t need to enter an office. They don’t have be seen going in that building,” Havasy pointed out.
  1. Some populations are being shut out of virtual mental healthcare. “What we saw during COVID was a remarkable 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 need to be aware of is a lot of times those kinds of issues influence the underserved,” Edwards said.

Unfortunately, there’s a digital divide, as most members of underserved populations “don’t have broadband access, or they don’t have a smartphone. [So, we will need to] make sure that we are promoting health equity, in regards 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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