Before COVID created the urgent and critical need to shift to virtual health care services, the slow acceptance and use of telemedicine was generally due to consumers’ lack of familiarity and trust in the virtual care delivery model. However, with the ability to treat a variety of health care needs virtually, the pivot to telemedicine was an obvious alternative for non-emergency care during the height of the pandemic when many doctor’s offices and urgent care facilities closed their doors. One patient population that telemedicine services have been particularly valuable for are those within the mental health category.
As the initial and ongoing effects of the pandemic continue to impact the mental health and well-being of individuals and society in general, it is no surprise that the demand for virtual mental health care services has been a major side effect of the pandemic.
Telehealth for Mental Health
The prevalence of mental illness in the U.S. was growing before COVID. Since the onset of the pandemic, mental health conditions and substance misuse have reached new heights as people struggle to cope with and adjust to the ever-changing circumstances. “Telemental” health services have been essential in addressing this critical need for mental health care during the pandemic.
In 2020 and throughout this past year, the top category of telehealth diagnoses has been mental health conditions. Of the diagnoses, the most common are generalized anxiety disorder, followed by major depressive disorder, and adjustment disorders, according to FAIR Health data. FAIR Health’s Monthly Telehealth Tracker found that mental health conditions accounted for 30% of the volume of claim lines in January 2020. Fast forward to June 2021, where mental health conditions accounted for 61.3% of telehealth diagnoses.
This marks the highest recorded percentage since the start of the pandemic, although overall telehealth utilization has fallen throughout 2021. This drop in telehealth utilization and increase in virtual mental health care may indicate the success that mental health patients see in the delivery of virtual behavioral health care.
As many practices and healthcare facilities have begun facilitating in-person visits, having the option to obtain professional treatment through telemedicine can provide a safe environment for individuals who struggle with stigma. Stigma has long been attached to mental illness and can be harmful to the one in five U.S. adults living with one.
Although strides are being taken to understand mental health and break the stigma, it remains a challenge for many living with mental health disorders. With the convenience, accessibility, and privacy that telemedicine provides, virtual therapy sessions for mental health conditions can result in fewer missed appointments and cancellations and higher numbers of treatments for the over 26 million individuals whose mental illnesses are going untreated.
Expanding Mental Health Offerings
The impact of the pandemic has taken a substantial toll on the well-being of employees, and employers recognize the emerging importance of telemedicine in their healthcare benefits – especially when it comes to the treatment of mental health issues. In the 2021 Large Employers’ Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey 91% of respondents revealed that they would offer mental telehealth services. An additional survey by the employer membership body Business Group on Health found that virtual tools and mental health services are two of the top priorities among large employers when planning their healthcare benefits strategies for 2022 and beyond.
While mental health care via telemedicine has its advantages, it is not an ideal alternative for everyone. There are instances in which patients may be advised against telemedicine visits, instead opting for a hybrid of in-person and virtual appointments based on their mental health status. For example, individuals who struggle with severe social anxiety may benefit from leaving their home for treatment or interacting with others through in-person group therapy sessions. Additionally, if the physician needs to perform a physical evaluation of the patient’s behavioral health, distinguishing any abnormalities such as eye contact and body language concerns may not be as detectable via telemedicine.
Momentum Moving Forward
The COVID-19 pandemic made telemedicine a hit. So, is this momentum expected to continue in a post-pandemic world? Although utilization has declined since its Spring 2020 peak, a July 2021 study suggested that usage was still 38 times higher than it was pre-COVID.
Virtual health care delivery existed before COVID and will continue to evolve as an alternative for patients when deemed appropriate. The pandemic has shown that virtual care services are an efficient and long-term solution for treating a variety of health concerns, especially those in the mental health category. As employers increasingly explore telemedicine options as they relate to mental health, evaluating your clients’ virtual care offerings relating to their members’ needs will be essential to building a competitive benefit.