Virtual Delivery Could Expand Treatment to Millions of Americans Suffering from Behavioral Health Issues

July 23, 2020

The role of technology in response to COVID-19 is a tipping point for virtual behavioral health services, according to a recent Accenture report.

The use of virtual delivery channels could expand treatment to 53 million Americans suffering from behavioral health issues, according to a new report from Accenture.

The report, “Breakthrough Behavioral Health Access: Think Virtual,” is based on a survey of more than 3,400 people in the U.S. diagnosed with or has symptoms related to specific behavioral health conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, attention deficit disorder or reported themselves having addiction or substance abuse issues.

Nearly 58 million adults and 8 million youth between the ages of six and 17 in the U.S. have mental health and/or substance use disorders, the report says. However, only 43% of affected adults are receiving treatment for these disorders. About 81% of the respondents in the survey said they would either definitely or probably engage in a virtual channel to manage their behavioral health condition.

Applying this finding to the 66 million impacted by these disorders suggests virtual channels could expand care to approximately 53 million people. With that being said, the number of people with these conditions is likely to rise due to the effects of COVID-19, record unemployment, and widespread social unrest, the report says.

“The behavioral health crisis in the U.S. isn’t new, but the pandemic is clearly exacerbating it,” says Rich Birhanzel, a senior managing director at Accenture who leads the company’s Health practice globally, in the report. “The rapid expansion of virtual care models during lockdown in the current pandemic created new expectations for effective and reliable healthcare at a distance. While our research found that only 38% of respondents hadn’t been widely using a virtual channel for such treatment in the prior three years, they’re now overwhelmingly willing to do so.”

The channels respondents said they’d be willing to use include on-demand videos (55%), webchat (63%), individual therapy by voice (59%) and individual therapy by voice plus video (56%). Majority of the patients more likely to participate in virtual behavior health services were the younger patients.

Also in the efforts of improving people’s lives, better access to care and treatment is crucial for those with behavioral health conditions in terms of overall outcomes and medical spending. Behavioral health patients typically have co-occurring medical conditions and as a result, can have two to three times the amount of associated health expenditures, the report says.

A similar Accenture study shows even a 1% increase in treatment for behavioral health disorders in the U.S. could yield as much as $2.4 billion in medical cost savings annually, due largely that individuals with behavioral health conditions often have other medical conditions.

The report highlights three fundamental factors healthcare providers should consider to remain relevant and responsive to consumers’ needs:

  • Control the personal cost. Four in 10 respondents say they would only use such channels if the services are provided at low or no cost. Public and private organizations sponsoring these solutions will need to think through how to lower costs to consumers—particularly those in need.
  • Orbit around experience. Beyond cost, consumers want convenience and a positive user experience. While consumers are hungry for behavioral health services through virtual channels, the design of the programs and consumers’ experiences will make or break adoption no matter the demand.
  • Make all the connections. Coordination and integration of care with a whole-person approach is critical. Services should be offered in context of individuals’ physical health, and data-sharing and interoperability among different healthcare stakeholders are critical to providing the most effective care.

COVID-19 has proven to have increased the demand for virtual health services at a fast rate throughout all of healthcare.dustry.

Birhanzel says, by adopting virtual services into behavioral health, professionals can improve outcomes and make treatment more accessible — reducing overall costs for payers, providers and the entire healthcare system.