For behavioral health, virtual becomes a reality through telehealth

January 21, 2021
Susan Ladika

MHE Publication, MHE January 2021, Volume 31, Issue 1

Although virtual visits as a whole have dropped off since their peak last spring, visits for behavioral health issues are still going strong, a reflection, in part, of the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on the mental health of Americans.

Although virtual visits as a whole have dropped off since their peak last spring, visits for behavioral health issues are still going strong, a reflection, in part, of the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on the mental health of Americans.

A survey by the CDC found that by late June 2020, 40% of Americans were struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues. More than 10% of those surveyed said they had seriously considered committing suicide during the previous 30 days. With COVID-19 cases and deaths increasing this winter, the mental health consequences of the pandemic are likely to continue.

Providing mental health services virtually can increase access to providers who, even before the pandemic, were in great demand, as well as reduce the stigma that can surround mental health care. Rather than going to a therapist’s office, patients can access care from their mobile phone or home computer.

MDLive reported its behavioral health business grew by nearly 50% during the first months of the pandemic, and the company expanded its network of board-certified psychiatrists and licensed therapists by 50% to meet the surging demand.

Teladoc Health reported in its third-quarter earnings call that virtual visits for anxiety and depression, along with hypertension and back pain, represented more than half of its volume, compared to a third of visits in 2019. “Demand for dermatology and behavioral health services continues to significantly outpace overall volume growth,” the company reported.

At Optum, which is part of UnitedHealth Group, patients made more than 1 million virtual visits from the start of the pandemic until late October 2020, said Optum CEO Wyatt Decker, M.D., MBA, during a recent press briefing. In spring 2020, the majority of all visits were virtual. While that number has dropped off, demand for virtual behavioral healthcare has remained high. Deckersaid half of all visits are still done virtually.

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