Telehealth Improves Access and Adherence to Mental Health Treatment

Back in 2016, over 50% of people in the US struggling with mental health did not receive care which includes a third of the 10.4 million American adults diagnosed with a serious mental health condition. Of the 21 million people that needed treatment for substance use disorder, only 18% or 3.8 million received it.

Data also shows that 55% of the 3,075 rural communities in the country do not have any psychiatric providers, which means that 15 million people living in rural areas and experiencing symptoms of mental health problems or substance dependence don’t have access to appropriate care.

Neglecting mental health disorders for an extended period of time can have harmful implications for both the individual and society as a whole. We are currently still battling social issues like the opioid epidemic.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, telehealth has become much more common, and there’s evidence to suggest that it can help us overcome some of the barriers to providing mental health services to everyone who needs them.

Telehealth uses electronic information and telecommunications technology to facilitate long-distance health care, health education, and health administration. It relies on electronic health records, video conferencing, and streaming media.

During the pandemic, people realized it was an effective tool that allowed them to keep in touch with their health care providers without having to put themselves at risk in waiting rooms. Telehealth was on the rise even before the pandemic, but it was used in less than 1% of cases. However, by October 2020, this number rose to 41%. What allowed for this rapid increase were also temporary changes in federal and state rules and health plan reimbursement policies.

Better Access for People Who Are Often Stigmatized by the Medical System

Another advantage of the telehealth expansion was that it increased accessibility for people who are frequently stigmatized by the medical system. For example, a survey conducted by the National LGBTQ Task Force found that 20% of the 6,450 transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents were denied care because of their gender identity.

Likewise, 28% reported harassment in medical settings, and 50% stated they actually had to explain to their providers what proper care for a transgender or gender-nonconforming person implies. Those figures represent only a small portion of the numerous barriers and examples of prejudice LGBTQIA+ people encounter while seeking standard health care.

Communities of color are also frequently discriminated against in the medical system, which affects their clinical outcomes. Statistics show a disproportionately high rate of negative health outcomes for black women in particular.

Over the past year, as more providers have adopted this type of technology, a number of platforms have emerged that were specifically created to offer more inclusive care and provide a valuable alternative to the sometimes exclusionary traditional healthcare settings.

Barriers Limiting Patient Access to Mental Health Treatment

More than 50 million people in the United States live with a mental health condition. But when they want to get treatment for it, in contrast to having chest pains or a sprained ankle, they encounter significant barriers.

Some, as we mentioned before, are not getting the help they need because they live in areas without mental health providers. They would have to travel long distances, which for some are prohibitive because they don’t have reliable transportation, don’t have enough time, or they’re unable to arrange for childcare.

But often the barriers are cultural. Despite the fact that mental health is becoming more commonly recognized and understood, patients still fear the social stigma associated with mental health conditions which discourages them from getting professional help.

Although 80% of American adults believe that treatment would benefit them, just two thirds believe that if people around them knew about their conditions, they would be sympathetic.

An NCBH survey found that 31% of respondents would like to visit a mental health provider, but they’re concerned with what others might think of them if they found out. 21% confessed that they did get professional help but lied to their social circle about it.

And social stigma is doing more than discouraging people from accessing mental health services. It’s also limiting their understanding of mental health and their ability to navigate the system.

Better Adherence to Treatment

Mental health may be riddled with challenges, such as lack of access to services or a society that is inadequately informed about their value, but the rise of telehealth solutions might serve as a silver lining.

Telehealth improves access to mental health care in the United States and around the world. Health care professionals are becoming increasingly convinced of the significance of being able to provide their services remotely, especially when events like the present pandemic cause disruptions.

And as mentioned earlier, the pandemic has also resulted in legislative reforms like the CARES Act that lifted some of the bureaucratic barriers.

Mental health is one of the branches of healthcare that can gain the most from telehealth because it usually does not involve physical exams. Thus sessions can take place entirely online or in conjunction with in-person visits if that is preferred. And telehealth is here to stay because another survey found that 70% of Americans aged 18 to 44 would rather get mental health services remotely than face-to-face.

When the pandemic forced mental health professionals to stop meeting their clients in person and instead switch to telehealth, it resulted in an unforeseen but fortunate development: lower no-show rates.

This had been a long-standing issue in the field, with about 60% of patients missing their appointments. In a survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, fewer than 10% of the psychiatrists who participated said that none of their patients missed appointments. However, the percentage increased to 32% after switching to telehealth.

Both providers and patients agree that telehealth provided an effective lifeline at a time when the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing rules used to counter it worsened anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

According to an analysis of 452 studies published in the World Journal of Psychiatry, telepsychiatry performs equally well, and sometimes better than, in-person implementation of these services. Many service providers wish to continue using these online platforms even after the pandemic is over.

Meanwhile, in some states, the temporary provisions made for the pandemic will become permanent, so mental health professionals will be reimbursed for providing their services remotely at the same rate, which means people who pay for mental health treatment through their insurance will get to keep their services at the same cost.

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