Prioritizing health equity means keeping telehealth for mental health and addiction care
John Boyd, PsyD, CEO for Mental Health & Addiction Care at Sutter Health
At Sutter Health, we see tremendous value in viewing mental health and addiction care through a “human health” lens for many reasons, including the fact that they are so intertwined with our experiences as human beings. Never has this been truer than now, as COVID-19 has caused massive disruption to our daily lives, leading to heightened anxiety, loneliness and uncertainty. Building meaningful relationships with the people who seek our care can provide a consistent, strong foundation for recovery. In 2020, safely achieving this much-needed sense of continuity and stability meant rapidly scaling up our telehealth service offerings across our network.
For many years, my healthcare colleagues and I have viewed telehealth as a potentially revolutionary way to remove barriers to access for more of the population, particularly in rural areas that face geographic isolation and provider shortages. Telehealth offers a range of benefits for these traditionally underserved communities, and at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that it would be a critical component of our response.
Thanks to the decisive action of federal and state regulators, telehealth guidelines were eased, the state of California required reimbursement, and insurance providers revised reimbursement procedures to cover these vital video visits.
All of these changes enabled our integrated network to rapidly scale our telehealth services to meet our communities’ medical and behavioral healthcare needs. The numbers are powerful—a clear signal that we should make permanent the regulatory changes and flexibility granted during this unprecedented time.
We’ve seen this significant expansion of services in the past seven months (March through October, 2020):
● 90% of outpatient behavioral health visits shifted to virtual care
● More than 30,000 patients referred to Quartet, our partner for in-person, telepsychiatry and digital-care services
● Achieved a decrease in no-show rates for both established and new patients, thanks to new patient referrals via video: at 5%, which is down from 15-25%
● 4,440 telepsychiatry consults completed across 16 Sutter emergency departments and hospitals (In fact, 10,900 patients have benefited from telepsychiatry in 16 hospital emergency departments since the launch of this service in 2017.)
Regulatory changes made at the beginning of the pandemic are directly allowing us to better serve patients, and it’s worth noting which specific populations are benefitting. Even before stay-at-home orders began, people living in rural communities faced challenges in being able to consistently make in-person appointments due to factors like limited transportation, finding childcare and taking time off work. Prior to the pandemic, Medicare also required that a patient’s very first visit with a mental health provider be in-person to qualify for reimbursement. Thanks to the flexibility granted this year, new patients can conduct their first visits through telehealth. This small change made a huge difference for rural patients, elderly or disabled individuals, and anyone else whose schedule makes in-person visits difficult.
Providing high-quality care to people with mental health or addiction issues requires early intervention, long-term care and acute response in emergencies. And until we can eliminate the unfortunate stigma long associated with mental health and addiction care, in-home telehealth visits can also take the fear out of seeking care. By virtually meeting individuals in their own homes, we’re ensuring that they have consistent support no matter what’s going on in the outside world. We can reach those in need before they find themselves in a moment of crisis.
As we look to the future, we should be encouraged by this year’s successes with telehealth and inspired to build on these advancements to further reimagine mental health and addiction care. Virtual visits must remain a necessary and vital aspect of care. The evidence is overwhelming, and we know the demand for this care is becoming greater than ever as well. We have an opportunity to permanently alter the role of telehealth in our healthcare system, and we support the regulators, policymakers and legislators working to make that a reality.
COVID-19 may have been the impetus for the rapid acceleration of our telehealth services, but our commitment to human health and providing the care that our communities need should drive us to keep the momentum going.
Learn more about our telehealth offerings at Sutter Health, or make an appointment, here.