Telehealth Has Played an Outsized Role Meeting Mental Health Needs During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Article from KFF, The independent source for health policy research, polling, and news

While telehealth services were underutilized before the pandemic, they represented a significant portion of outpatient visits during the peak of COVID-19, with a subsequent decline as in-person care resumed. Despite this decline, telehealth remains an important tool for delivering mental health services, particularly for individuals facing barriers to in-person care. Some private payers and Medicaid programs have expanded coverage for telehealth services, recognizing its value in maintaining access to care. The analysis, based on data from over 126 million patients, underscores the ongoing significance of telehealth, especially for mental health and substance use services, as the pandemic continues.

KFF: "Mental health and substance use services by telehealth has remained elevated whereas other outpatient care use by telehealth has declined"

The Key Findings from the KKF Study:

  1. Telehealth utilization for mental health and substance use visits has increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a marked rise in telehealth's share of outpatient visits for these conditions compared to pre-pandemic levels.
  2. Rural residents are more likely to use telehealth for mental health and substance use visits, possibly due to shortages of mental health providers in rural areas.
  3. Non-elderly adults consistently used telehealth for mental health and substance use services, with a higher rate compared to children and seniors.
  4. Telehealth is significant across major mental health and substance use disorder conditions, with a large share of outpatient visits being delivered via telehealth for conditions like depression, anxiety, opioid-related disorders, and alcohol-related disorders.
  5. The mass adoption of telehealth raises questions about access, cost, and quality of mental health and substance use disorder services, especially regarding differences in technology comfort and internet access.
  6. Policies governing telehealth services are evolving, with Medicare and Medicaid expanding coverage and flexibility for telehealth visits, including audio-only visits and removal of geographic restrictions.
  7. Concerns about the availability of mental health providers have led to increased interest in telehealth services from employers and payers, potentially bolstering access to care through telehealth.
  8. Future regulations and policies regarding telehealth, including prescribing patterns and patient choice, will influence its long-term use for mental health and substance use disorders post-pandemic.

From the Article

"Data during the pandemic suggest there is a concerning increase in the number of individuals reporting symptoms of depression or anxiety and showing signs of substance use disorder. Many employers have expressed concern about the availability of mental health providers in their plan network. Given the increased need for services and concerns about the availability of mental health and substance use care providers, some payers may look to bolster access to these services through telehealth."

Read the Article

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