Just a few months ago, it was estimated that 1 in 5 Americans would experience a mental health problem in their lifetime. Social isolation, the economic downturn, and vast uncertainty caused by the coronavirus have significantly increased those odds.
In addition to overcoming the stigma attached to mental health care, stay at home orders and social distancing mandates have presented new obstacles for those in need of treatment. How are people supposed to meet with a clinician if they can barely leave their homes? This is where telehealth comes in.
Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March and the United States fell into a state of emergency, Jefferson Center has been working to adopt and implement telehealth technology as a way to enforce social distancing while continuing to deliver services to the community.
This method of communicating with clients via phone and video appointments increases client and staff safety by minimizing the risk of exposure to the virus so it’s no surprise that telehealth has boomed in popularity over the past few months.
“Preliminary survey results show that 83% of our clients report preferring video or phone for their future visits and 88% of our clinical staff report experiencing telehealth as an effective way of providing care,” said Brandon Ward, Jefferson Center’s Chief Innovation Officer, “Despite communication tools for remote client care being available for decades, the broad health care system has been slow to adopt telehealth, even with established positive outcomes research. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of telehealth as a way to continue care while enforcing physical distancing.”
Prior to the pandemic, telehealth technology was reserved for providing care to clients who lived far away from providers or in areas where providers are scarce. Barriers such as reimbursement, client and provider buy-in, and technology prevented many mental health facilities from making widespread use of telehealth. Additionally, many people were skeptical that telehealth services would be able to live up to the privacy rules laid out in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which safeguards protected health information like patient names, addresses, diagnoses, and more.
But almost overnight, Jefferson Center, like many other health care providers, had to move the majority of services to a remote platform.
“Within days of the stay-at-home order being announced in Colorado, we were up and running, offering services from our homes to the homes of our community members,” said Ward.
Swift federal and state actions, along with an emergency spending bill passed by Congress that dedicated $500 million for telehealth services, acted as an adoption curve springboard, making telehealth a daily means of delivering services at Jefferson Center. However, transitioning to telehealth was not as simple as picking up the phone and making a call.
Along with training staff on how to use these new communication tools and ensuring HIPAA-compliance in every aspect, it quickly became apparent that many clients would need to be taught how to use telehealth services as well. Jefferson Center worked quickly to create resource pages, providing comprehensive instructions on how to access telehealth services and troubleshoot technological problems. On top of that, an on-call support team was created to walk clients through services whenever they need help.
There are plenty of barriers to entry that clients traditionally faced when it came to receiving routine, reliable mental health services such as securing childcare, arranging transportation for the differently-abled, and disorders that cause people to fear unfamiliar places and situations. Since people have been able to meet with their clinicians from the comfort of their own homes, Jefferson Center clients have reported their satisfaction with the improved flexibility.
Flexibility has been a key component of telehealth’s success for many clients who otherwise would have likely stopped receiving mental health services altogether.
“Without the virtual meetings, I would have worried about losing my job for taking time off to go to my appointments,” said one Jefferson Center client. “Being able to talk with my therapist over video has helped me keep my mental health and my job.”
Clinicians have also reported that some of their clients with substance use disorders who were previously difficult to engage with have been able to stay on track with their appointments and receive regular services.
A recent survey revealed that 45% of respondents said that their mental health has been negatively impacted by the pandemic and another study found that nearly half of respondents showed some signs of depression over the past two months. Social distancing, job loss, and financial distress were all cited as major threats to people’s mental health.
“When you’re in a pandemic, the threat never goes away,” said Jefferson Center clinician, Kathy Baur, “The reality is that we really don’t have a lot of control right now with the pandemic, but we can take steps to protect our mental health like seeking out treatment.”
As the pandemic continues, the ability of clients to access services via telehealth is essential to the long-term mental health of communities. Luckily, many states have made changes to the mandated Medicaid coverage of telehealth, loosening restrictions in an effort to make mental health treatment more accessible for Medicaid clients. This funding will be essential in Colorado as the Department of Health Care Policy prepares for a spike of about half a million people enrolling in Medicaid.
The numerous benefits of telehealth have become self-evident over the past few months and some industry leaders have described this as “the new normal.” However, Ward warns that for these services to continue being offered in full force, more sustainable systems need to be established.
“COVID-19 and the emergency expansion of funding to support telehealth services meant that providers had the right conditions to quickly change the way care is delivered,” said Ward, “However, when the need for physical distancing dissipates, insurance providers,including Medicaid and Medicare, do not have to continue broad funding of telehealth services.”
If you or someone you know has benefitted from telehealth services during the pandemic, please reach out to your health care providers, insurance provider, and legislative representatives and let them know. With your voice, we can prove that telehealth is more than just a backup plan. For some, it can even be lifesaving.
To learn more about Jefferson Center and the telehealth services we offer to support the community, visit our website at jcmh.org.