Accessibility and Behavioral Health: How Some Hospital Case Workers Have Cracked the Code
Reports last year claimed telehealth for mental health services were provided only for a small percentage of those seeking help. That was before the novel coronavirus and subsequent emergency response forced the delivery of health care services away from in-person-only treatment.
“Access to care is improving, but most Americans still have no access to care,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in a U.S. News & World Report article in mid-2019. 1
Half a year later, the concept of accessibility and behavioral health was pushed to the forefront as Americans were forbidden to socialize for fear of the awful COVID-19 illness. Telehealth online counseling, once considered a “maybe” thing of the future, became imperative for timely mental health treatment of thousands of people.
Behavioral Health Accessibility Broadened
Attention to behavioral health accessibility couldn’t have come sooner. “More needs to be done to give Americans much needed access to mental health services,” Dr. Anthony Hassan, Cohen Veterans Network President and Chief Executive Officer, said in late 2018. 2 “If we want to save lives, save families and save futures we must reimagine our behavioral health system and take concrete steps to improving consumers’ ability to find the care they need, when they need it, and on their terms.”
Hassan commented on the results of a study that claimed the nation’s mental health services were insufficient, and the crux of the problem is lack of accessibility to finding and securing care.
That mental health symptoms can be revealed through physical ailments, such as headaches, intestinal discomfort, anxiety attacks and more, has government and health insurance officials re-thinking telehealth. Especially during a national emergency, mental health or addiction crises could send people to the emergency room.
Accessibility to Telehealth Online Counseling Imperative
Insurance coverage (or lack thereof) limited access to therapy or addiction treatment – especially in terms of telehealth services. Then the novel coronavirus arrived. Government regulators and insurance carriers acted swiftly to make changes allowing more medical usage of telehealth options. The gap in mental health service accessibility began to be bridged.
The pandemic’s impact on the mental health world was almost immediate. Videoconferencing, especially from mobile phone apps, helped many people involved with 12-step programs to overcome addiction or troubles with alcohol.
“Video conference meetings have been a life-saver” to many in recovery, according to a Southern California volunteer who arranged a private social media group that thousands of people in recovery joined within days of the pandemic’s start.
Telehealth Established; Work Now to Expand Applications
The National Council for Behavioral Health report cited above found that only 7% of Americans who have heard of telehealth actually used it. Yet, almost half of them reported a willingness to use it.
Arrival of the coronavirus forced the hand of policymakers both in government and private insurance. The pandemic caused a yet-undetermined number of new mental health issues – and behavioral health treatment services, counselors and therapists began taking advantage of telemedicine.
The reasons are twofold: Telehealth protected health care workers and clients from potential infection; and telehealth online counseling services could be provided in a timely manner. Gone was the need for transportation and wasted time for office visits.
Fortunately, telehealth services have been around a while. For instance, Seattle Children’s Hospital established a telehealth program in 2001, and mental health services have been part of the program for many years 3. A not-for-profit acute care psychiatric hospital in Maine reported 3,200 emergency psychiatric evaluations through videoconferencing in 2019. The number doubled from the previous year.
Hospital Workers and Mental Health Counselors Already Engaging Telehealth
A news report 4 in early April 2020 claimed most mental health providers already use video services to treat patients. Around the same time, Marketplace.org reported on coming insurance coverage changes, noting that some therapists already use telehealth for timely assistance for clients – regardless whether or not insurance will pay for the services. 5
Perceived barriers in the ability to receive mental health treatment are falling. “Providers who thought it impossible to develop a therapeutic alliance through telemental health are very surprised to see its effectiveness once they try it,” reported Dr. Yolanda Evans at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“The industry of telehealth is expanding for many reasons, including increased access to technology, a demand for more affordable health services and the desire for convenient care,” Forbes reported in early March 2020. 6