Cigna: COVID-driven demand for virtual behavioral healthcare remains high

A person talks to their doctor on their phone with a laptop in the background
A new analysis from Cigna looks at the spike in demand for virtual behavioral healthcare under the pandemic. (Getty/airdone)

Many people who sought out behavioral healthcare services amid COVID-19 had never done so before, according to new data from Cigna.

Cigna analyzed claims data from March to May 2020, the time of the initial lockdowns nationwide due to the pandemic, and found that 97% of people who accessed behavioral health services during that period never had a behavioral healthcare claim before.

The insurer's study also found a 7.9% increase in the use of antidepressants in 2020 compared to 2019. Nearly a third (32.1%) of people who took antidepressants last year had no history of taking them six months before their first prescription, Cigna said.

Cigna found a 27% increase in outpatient care visits for behavioral health needs compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to the study.

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"Over the past 12 months, the strain of the pandemic on our mental health has made us realize that it is OK to ‘not feel ok.’ There have been myriad challenges that we have navigated, from the stress of working remotely, the strain of social isolation or the stress of caring for children or aging parents without external support," Stuart Lustig, M.D., national medical executive for Behavioral Health at Cigna, told Fierce Healthcare. "These factors, plus a global pandemic and unstable political landscape, have taught us that we need to talk about our mental health and seek care so that we can continue functioning at our best."

The majority of those seeking behavioral healthcare (63%) were women, according to the study, with female patients more likely to seek out such care across all age and ethnic groups. Nearly half (45%) of people seeking behavioral healthcare were under 30.

The explosion in telehealth use, however, offers a significant opportunity to get at those challenges, the study found. Cigna found that 60% of its behavioral health customers now use telehealth.

Adoption rates for virtual behavioral health were up more than 4,500% for men and women under age 18 and 7,500% for men over the age of 70, the study found. For women over 60, adoption rates were up 6,900%.

Cigna also found that while virtual visits for other types of services declined after the initial COVID-19 spike, virtual visits for behavioral health remained in high demand. In April 2020, virtual visits made up about 50% of claims for non-behavioral health services and declined over the course of the year to account for nearly 25% today.

"Virtual behavioral health care is not only a way to access mental health services in the wake of social distancing, but it also allows us the option to pursue treatment in the privacy and comfort of our own homes," Lustig said.

By contrast, in April, 66% of office visits for behavioral health were conducted virtually, and it's remained largely flat since.

Behavioral telehealth users also reported higher productivity at work, according to the survey. These patients reported a 45% decrease in sick days, compared to a 28% decrease in miss workdays among patients who did not use telehealth.