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By Brian Summerfield

Right now, we’re seeing a perfect storm for growth in telemental health, and it’s due to a combination of three factors: a workforce shortage of psychiatrists, consistently good outcomes for consumers, and increasing acceptance by payer organizations.

Interest in telemental health isn’t new. Payer and provider organizations have seen its benefits for years. For example, when Foley & Lardner surveyed health care executives back in 2014, 52% said development of telemedicine services was “very important” for the future success of their organizations, and another 32% said it was just “important” (see 2014 Telemedicine Survey Executive Summary).

But new developments have emerged in the years since to make telemental health even more primed for growth. We discussed this topic last month at The 2017 OPEN MINDS Performance Management Institute in the session, Alignment Of Care Delivery & Value Based Programs: Integrated Care Models To Produce Improved Outcomes Within Complex Populations. In the session, speakers Orville Mercer, MSW, Vice President, Behavioral Health, Chestnut Health Systems, and President, IBHHC LLC; Bill Guptail, Senior Vice President, Payor Relations, Genoa, a QOL healthcare company; Mona Darwich, Program Director, LaFrontera Southwest; Shahzad Rashid, DO, Psychiatrist, Genoa Telepsychiatry; and Amy Rice, Director of Behavioral Health Services, Optum Behavioral Health, covered the trends that are driving the use of telemental health — and making it a good strategic bet as a service line for the future:

Fewer Psychiatrists

Ms. Rice pointed out that there’s a growing gap between the number of U.S. adults with diagnosable mental health issues in a given year — about 1 in 5 in 2015, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (see Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Mental Health Awareness Month: By the Numbers) — and the number of young people choosing psychiatry as a career. Ms. Rice went through the numbers on the latter in her presentation, which included the following breakdown:

If that gap continues to widen, we can expect access to psychiatric services to become an even bigger issue in mental health. As Ms. Rice pointed out, the growing shortfall of professional psychiatrists will likely limit access to in-person mental health services in the future as more areas become underserved. However, telemental health offers a way for them to figuratively and literally expand their reach, delivering those services to people in more remote and unpopulated areas.

Positive Telemental Health Outcomes

Customer service and other value-oriented outcomes have become more critical for provider organizations. Consequently, one concern has been that telemedicine — despite its efficiency — could lead to a precipitous drop in satisfaction and successful treatment rates among large numbers of consumers who would have otherwise thrived in face-to-face interactions. That hasn’t really happened, as much of the research around telemedicine shows.

For instance, in a report published in May 2015 in Addiction Science & Clinical Practice, the authors found studies in “videoconferencing for addiction services have found no difference in the results or patient satisfaction of care provided in person or by video” (see Trends In Telemedicine Use In Addiction Treatment). And a 2015 study from Software Advice found that among survey respondents who had used telemedicine, 67% said it either “somewhat” or “significantly increases” satisfaction with care overall (see Patient Interest In Adopting Telemedicine). During the presentation, Ms. Darwich and Dr. Rashid noted that at LaFrontera, an Arizona-based behavioral health provider organization, their model of using telepsychiatry within their integrated care team has created a more holistic consumer care experience, and resulted in both improved clinical outcomes and consumer satisfaction.

A Payer Push Toward Telemedicine

In a report released last year, the Center for Connected Health Policy said 44 states introduced more than 150 pieces of legislation during 2016 legislative sessions that were somehow related to telehealth. Many of those bills included provisions that altered reimbursement laws in favor of telemedicine (see State Telehealth Laws & Medicaid Program Policies). In addition, because the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and more state Medicaid organizations are promoting direct-to-consumer services, as Ms. Rice pointed out, telemedicine is looking more and more appealing.

Taken together, the above offer a great outlook for the prospects of telemental health. Positive outcomes, consumer support, payer coverage — these factors combined make it easy to predict that we’ll continue to see a greater adoption of telehealth in the future. It’s up to provider organizations now to find a sustainable way to incorporate telemental health into their service delivery models by partnering with payers and other organizations.

To learn more about the current and future market for telemental health, check out these resources from the OPEN MINDS Industry Library:

And for a deep dive in making telehealth part of your organization’s strategy, mark your calendar now for The 2017 OPEN MINDS Technology & Informatics Institute on November 7-8, 2017, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This year’s keynote speakers include James Schuster, MD, MBA, chief medical officer & vice president, Behavioral Integration, Behavioral Health and Medicaid Services, UPMC Insurance Division, Community Care Behavioral Health Organization; and Andrew Wright, vice president, Digital Medicine, Otsuka America Pharmaceutical Inc.

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