Virtual behavioral health could expand access to care for 53M Americans, report finds

As the COVID-19 pandemic isolates patients, virtual care has proven to be a lifeline for patients who need behavioral health services.

The continued use of virtual services, from video visits to webchats, could help open up access to behavioral health treatment for millions of patients. And this could be a potential breakthrough in terms of overall outcomes and medical spending, according to a new report from Accenture.

During the public health emergency, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has temporarily expanded the types of healthcare providers can offer via telehealth to broaden patient access to care. As a result, about 460,000 Medicare beneficiaries have received mental health services via telehealth, or 60% of all behavioral health visits, according to CMS data.

Commercial telehealth providers also are seeing a boost in tele-mental health visits. Teladoc Health said requests for mental health virtual visits among people aged 18 to 30 doubled in March and April this year.

RELATED: Digital behavioral health startups scored $588M in funding amid COVID-19 pandemic

Mental health benefits startup Lyra Health has reported that demand for video visits has nearly doubled as the pandemic stretches on. The majority of Lyra’s mental health visits (85%) are now conducted via secure video or telephone calls.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, providers have conducted 1.1 million tele-mental health visits with more than 350,000 veterans this year.

The role of technology in response to COVID-19 is a tipping point for virtual behavioral health services. Virtual services could materially expand access to treatment for more than 53 million people, according to Accenture's analysis.

Current data indicate nearly 58 million adults and 8 million youth between the ages of six and 17 in the U.S. have mental health and/or substance use disorders, yet only 43% of affected adults are receiving treatment for them, according to Accenture.

The company surveyed 3,400 people in the U.S. diagnosed with or having symptoms related to specific behavioral health conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, attention deficit disorder or reported themselves as having addiction or substance abuse issues.

Virtual behavioral health services remove geographic, physical and other barriers to free up clinician time and enable people to self-manage their situation more effectively. The use of virtual tools also can help overcome any stigma associated with seeking behavioral health care.

Four in five respondents (81%)  said they would either definitely or probably engage in a virtual channel to manage their behavioral health condition.

RELATED: Teladoc exec: Why COVID-19 is proving a 'great equalizer' for mental health care

By applying this finding to the 66 million adults and youths impacted by these disorders, Accenture's analysis suggests that virtual channels could expand care to more than 50 million people.

What's more, the number of people with such conditions is likely to rise due to the current environment of COVID-19, record unemployment and widespread social unrest.

"The behavioral health crisis in the U.S. isn’t new, but the pandemic is clearly exacerbating it,” said Rich Birhanzel, a senior managing director at Accenture who leads the company’s health practice globally.

“The rapid expansion of virtual care models during lockdown in the current pandemic created new expectations for effective and reliable healthcare at a distance. While our research found that only 38% of respondents hadn’t been widely using a virtual channel for such treatment in the prior three years, they’re now overwhelmingly willing to do so," Birhanzel said.
The channels respondents said they’d be willing to use include on-demand videos (cited by 55%), webchat (63%), individual therapy via voice (59%) and individual therapy via voice plus video (56%).

In addition to improving people’s lives, increased access can translate into reduced medical costs.

RELATED: As COVID-19 isolates patients, telehealth becomes lifeline for behavioral health

Behavioral health patients typically have co-occurring medical conditions and, as a result, can have two to three times the amount of associated health expenditures, according to the report. Even a 1% increase in treatment for behavioral health disorders in this country could yield as much as $2.4 billion in medical savings annually in the U.S., the company said.

The report notes three fundamental factors that healthcare providers should consider to remain relevant and responsive to consumers’ needs:

  • Control the personal cost. Four in 10 respondents (44%) said they would only use such channels if the services are provided at low or no cost to them. Public and private organizations sponsoring these solutions will need to think through how to lower costs to consumers—particularly those in need.  
  • Orbit around experience. Beyond cost, consumers want convenience and a positive user experience. While consumers are hungry for behavioral health services through virtual channels, the design of the programs and consumers’ experiences will make or break adoption no matter the demand.
  • Make all the connections. Coordination and integration of care with a whole-person approach is critical. Services should be offered in context of individuals’ physical health, and data-sharing and interoperability among different healthcare stakeholders are critical to providing the most effective care.

“COVID-19 has increased the demand for virtual health services nearly overnight,” Birhanzel said. “By adopting virtual services into behavioral health, we can improve outcomes and make treatment more accessible—reducing overall costs for payers, providers and the entire healthcare system.”