Behavioral telehealth: In it for the long haul
Moreso than any other health sector, telehealth for behavioral health is expected to outlive the pandemic. When COVID-19 put the world into lockdown, patients and clinicians had to navigate virtual realities together. What started as a safety measure quickly became a societal norm as the benefits of virtual care became clear.
There are many factors that contribute to the attractiveness of telehealth services. For patients, some of the most favored benefits are cost, convenience and comfort. With telehealth options, patients finally have some say in how, when and where they want to receive care. Offering more convenient and accessible services can help to improve health equity and reduce disparities. And to top it all off, the benefits even extend beyond the patient.
Some healthcare providers leveraging telehealth are also experiencing an increase in efficiency and revenue. Telehealth appointments can provide more personalized health services, while lowering costs and improving access to care.1 We wanted to see how telehealth utilization has changed since the pandemic and if there were any signs of it stopping.
With our healthcare analytics, we examined physical and mental health telehealth utilization from the early stages of the pandemic (January 2020) through November 2021.
The findings were striking:
- Telehealth use by behavioral and mental health practitioners accounted for 53 to 59% of their visits in April 2020. Far exceeding use by general practitioners accounting for only 20 to 25% of their April 2020 visits.
- Furthermore, the use of telehealth by behavioral health practitioners persisted; accounting for 40% of visits in November 2021. Whereas general healthcare providers usage rapidly dropped after the April 2020 peak, accounting for only 5% of visits in November 2021.
Based on our findings, it's safe to assume that behavioral telehealth is here to stay.
What does this mean for health plans and employers?
Health plans and employers should review their telehealth policy and programs to expand access during a time of burgeoning need for mental health services. As employees continue to work from home, many appreciate the convenience of behavioral telehealth. Our team found that, “early data suggests that the use of behavioral telehealth resonates with both patients and providers and may be a vital component to continue to include in benefit packages offered by employers to support the well-being of their employees.”
Offering a competitive benefits package helps attract and retain talent, and helps employees address their health needs. According to a Glassdoor survey, 80% of employees prefer additional benefits over a pay increase.2 Shining a bright light on the importance of benefits for employees, and emphasizing the need for solid benefit plans.
Telehealth reflects a fundamental change in the way healthcare services can be delivered. And the data proves that many people prefer virtual options over in-person visits. If the delivery of care is shifting, shouldn’t benefits programs shift too? Employers and health plans need to consider the following:
Employers and payers aim to provide the best care, at the best cost. To do so effectively, they need to deeply understand their population with healthcare analytics. Pulling in data from various sources gives a fuller picture of inputs and outcomes. Population health data and analytics, helps payers and employers identify access issues, care patterns and costs related to mental and behavioral health. With numbers in hand, they can make the case to leadership for behavioral health care programs and justify additional spend to support members and employees.
In summary, while behavioral telehealth may be revolutionary, primary care telehealth seems more evolutionary. Primary care providers have not fundamentally adopted telehealth as a standard modality, likely due to the frequent need for physical examination. In contrast, mental health providers have expanded rapidly and, likely, permanently. Employers and payers should consider how behavioral telehealth and other virtual human services can fit into their lasting portfolio of services.
- Siwicki, Bill. “How Telehealth Can Improve Efficiency and Increase Revenue.” Healthcare IT News, May 9, 2022. https://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/how-telehealth-can-improve-efficiency-and-increase-revenue
- Labitoria, Coann. “Salary vs Employee Benefits: Which Is Better to Offer?” HRD America. HRD America, November 26, 2021. https://www.hcamag.com/us/specialization/benefits/salary-vs-employee-benefits-which-is-better-to-offer/318056