By Tom Toperczer, director of product management for OmniJoin, Brother International Corporation’s web conferencing service.
A recent study of Medicare beneficiaries in rural areas found telehealth use for mental healthcare had grown 45 percent each year from 2004 to 2014.1 While growth was uneven—ranging from zero visits per 100 beneficiaries in a few states to 25 visits per 100 beneficiaries in others—it still indicates that patients with mental health conditions are highly receptive to telehealth as a care delivery venue.
Telehealth, especially delivered through mobile devices, creates a convenient way for patients to receive care since virtual appointments eliminate travel and help reduce wait times before connecting with a qualified care professional. Accessing telehealth services also allows patients to address mental health conditions, such as depression, that also may interfere with illness recovery or chronic condition management.2
The recent study of Medicare beneficiaries is no anomaly. Mental health organizations have taken advantage of telehealth technology for years. By leveraging telehealth, these organizations have helped overcome geographical, economic and social barriers to close mental health gaps.
Addressing a need and mental health stigma
Rural areas are not the only regions being better served with mental health delivered through telehealth. As of May 2017, the Health Resources and Services Administration reported 4,712 Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas across the country, nearly 1,800 of those in non-rural areas.3
Addressing this shortage will require more than educating and training new mental health professionals. Building a workforce will need to coincide with improving access for patients that face external, but also internal, barriers to care.
One such potential obstacle is a cultural stigma in some communities, families or peer groups about seeking care for mental health. This barrier affects younger adults, too, who one would assume would have fewer negative preconceptions about mental healthcare. However, a 2015 survey of college students found that 90 percent agreed (or strongly agree) with the statement that millennials are “influenced by other people’s judgments and opinions when deciding to seek mental healthcare.”4
In addition to the social stigma, an economic barrier is that many patients need to take time off work to visit a mental health professional. One study found that the time patients spent traveling to and from their provider’s office and in the waiting area consumes 121 minutes of their time, including 37 minutes in travel and 84 minutes of clinic time spent in the waiting and exam rooms.5
Authors calculated that all of this time costs each patient $43 in addition to the medical costs, which can be a significant financial hardship. Although the waiting time may be shorter depending on the size and type of mental health professional the patient sees, the travel and wait time may still prevent some patients from receiving needed care.
Treating the whole patient
Addressing economic and social barriers surrounding mental healthcare, such as for addiction treatment, were an emphasis of former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D. In a report on addiction treatment, Murthy stated that technology-based interventions, such as telehealth, offer many potential advantages, including increasing access to care in underserved areas and settings.6
Murthy also stated that these interventions free up time so that service providers can care for more patients, and they provide alternative care venue options for individuals hesitant to seek in-person treatment.
As an alternative, patients could access care through their smart mobile device, which the vast majority of Americans now own. Seeking help for their mental health condition through mobile or other online methods may seem more feasible, offering the privacy and convenience they desire. It is now up to providers and payers to expand their access through telehealth and offer a technologically secure and emotionally safe environment to deliver care.
About the author
Tom Toperczer is director of product management for Brother. With more than 20 years of experience in the video conferencing industry, Toperczer supports OmniJoin, the company’s web conferencing service with a growing healthcare segment.
1“Rapid Growth In Mental Health Telemedicine Use Among Rural Medicare Beneficiaries, Wide Variation Across States.” Health Affairs, May 2017. Accessible at: http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/36/5/909.abstract
2“The detection and treatment of depression in the physically ill.” World Psychiatry. February 2010. Accessible at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/j.2051-5545.2010.tb00256.x/full
3“Shortage Areas” Health Resources & Services Administration Data Warehouse. Web site. Accessible at: https://datawarehouse.hrsa.gov/topics/shortageAreas.aspx#chart
4“Survey: Stress, Stigma and Access Loom Large for Millennials.” American University Matters of the Mind Project. 2015. Accessible at: http://www.themillennialminds.com/survey/
5“Opportunity Costs of Ambulatory Medical Care in the United States.” American Journal of Managed Care. August 18, 2015. Accessible at: http://www.ajmc.com/journals/issue/2015/2015-vol21-n8/Opportunity-Costs-of-Ambulatory-Medical-Care-in-the-United-States#sthash.iOwBcrVk.dpuf
6“Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016. Accessible at: https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/surgeon-generals-report.pdf