Telehealth Brings Behavioral Health Care to People in Need

Virtual visits may improve access to behavioral health services, particularly for people living in areas where mental health professional shortages are a barrier to care.

Hand touching healthcare app on screen. GETTY IMAGES

Many people who need behavioral health care aren’t getting it. Some are reluctant to seek care, and others live too far from health services or find that mental health professionals are in short supply.

Telehealth programs are one way to improve access to care, especially for people who live in areas where shortages of behavioral health clinicians are more pronounced. Based on current trends, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates an unmet demand for more than 15,000 psychiatrists by 2025. Shortages are expected to emerge or worsen among other behavioral health practitioners as well.

Already access to behavioral health care is a problem for many who need it. In 2013, a survey by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found about 43.8 million U.S. adults had a mental illness but only 19.6 million received mental health services.

And because telehealth visits are conducted via interactive audio/video via a smart phone or computer, the technology may help some members overcome the discomfort they have with getting help because of the stigma of mental illness.

Through Virtual Visits, a benefit now included in many plans operated by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, Montana, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas , MDLIVE doctors and therapists may recommend treatments for common behavioral health issues including anxiety and depression, substance abuse, child behavior and learning issues, marriage problems and more.

Members can schedule visits with psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors for ongoing therapy and diagnostic assessments, and prescriptions can be written, if deemed clinically appropriate. Behavioral health consultations are available by appointment only.

Growth of telehealth

Fast internet connections, webcams and smartphones are fueling the growth of telehealth, also called telemedicine. There is some evidence that this new approach to providing health services will help lead to lower costs.

As people pay more of health care bills out of their own pockets, they search for cost-effective care and demand easy access and convenience. And people with regular, timely access to those services are less likely to seek care in ERs and other settings that aren’t right for their needs.

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