October 3, 2022

Taquer-Tech

Melts In Your Technology

How the pandemic forever changed mental health

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Telehealth concept Although virtual health care use rates for telemedicine services have returned to pre-pandemic levels, the use of mental health services through telemedicine remains high.

Although there have been many revolutions in the kinds of mental health treatments offered, the way that people receive mental health services has changed little since the days of Freud, if not Pinel. Patients see their mental health providers in person. It seems immutable. That is, until the coronavirus pandemic upended a system of delivery that had been in place for decades. Help is now just a phone call away.

The way that mental health care is delivered may never go back fully to the previous model. Telemedicine for mental health may be the new standard.

Related: Employee mental health in the workplace: What employers can do to help

As Vox observed last year, the pandemic dramatically shifted the delivery system for mental health services in the United States. “If you’re one of the 59 million Americans covered by Medicare,” they wrote, “new COVID-19 legislation has waived the long-standing restrictions on your use of telehealth services (for the duration of this public health emergency, that is). Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, restrictions on the use of phones to conduct telehealth visits have been lifted, meaning you can have your appointments over apps like FaceTime and Skype. And crucially, you can now meet with providers like this regardless of the distance between your physical locations, which used to just be an option for patients in rural areas that were basically therapy deserts.”

That’s still the case at the beginning of 2022, suggesting that the shift may be permanent.

According to a new study by health data analytics company Springbuk, although virtual health care use rates for telemedicine services have returned to pre-pandemic levels, the use of mental health services through telemedicine remains high.

Ninety-seven percent of organizations in Springbuk’s 2022 Healthiest Employers survey reported offering telemedicine opportunities to employees. Our aggregate platform data confirmed the rise, which peaked in April 2020 at 95.5 visits per 1,000 members. Since then, those numbers have declined, diminishing to just 44.4 visits per 1,000 members by June 2021. Mental health use rates remained relatively stable throughout 2021, with 26.4 visits per 1,000 by June, down only 20% from the spike in April 2020.

The stability of telemedicine visits for mental health suggests that this new model for care may have become normalized. In June 2021, for the first time, the number of telemedicine mental health visits exceeded that for all other types of telemedicine.

We also have reason to believe that this mode of intervention can produce the right outcomes. The American Psychological Association has concluded that “research to date shows mental health care delivered remotely — also known as telepsychology or teletherapy — is effective. Psychologists — along with psychiatrists, social workers, and others — have built a substantial literature base on telehealth interventions that work for a variety of problems and populations.” (That said, the research on certain new digital platforms for mental health care is more equivocal.)

Consider it to be one silver lining of the pandemic. People will use new and different vehicles for care when they are offered the chance. Patients are able to adapt, showing that we are all capable of resiliency, even in the most turbulent times. And we can all pick up the phone.

Jennifer Jones, MSM RD, is population health practice Leader at Springbuk and an experienced health care professional with a background in clinical dietetics, wellness programming, and employer health. With over 20 years of experience, she has worked in various settings, including health care systems, occupational health organizations, and health and welfare benefits advisory firms.


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