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Health Systems Target Telehealth to Fill a Mental Healthcare Gap

With anxiety and depression affecting more and more Americans, providers are turning to telehealth and digital health to give their patients on-demand access to therapy and coping tools.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- At a time when anxiety and depression are as rampant as TV Christmas specials, health systems are turning to telehealth to meet a huge demand for discreet care.

They’re finding success with platforms that connect patients to online therapy resources when and where they need it, and pushing the needle on digital health tools that measure success in continued engagement. If someone takes the time and effort to check in each week on a mobile app or online portal, chances are good they’re getting the help they need.

“We have a pretty under-resourced mental health workforce,” says Mike Anderes, president of Inception Health, the digital health arm of Milwaukee-based Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Health Network, which launched a telehealth-based behavioral health service earlier this year. “A [platform] like this goes a long way toward fixing a big supply-and-demand mismatch.”

The stressful holiday season aside, surveys indicate as many as 43.8 million Americans experience some sort of behavioral health crisis in a year – yet 60 percent don’t receive treatment, often because of a lack of access or resources.

Those who do seek healthcare services, meanwhile, are racking up quite a bill. In 2013, treatment for mental health disorders cost the nation $201 billion, more than what was spent to treat heart disease or cancer.

Telehealth stands to overcome those barriers by giving patients the chance to access services in their own homes, offices, cars – wherever and whenever needed. And that access is enabled through a laptop, tablet or smartphone, rather than the doctor’s office. It’s an avenue both discreet and personal, appealing to a growing population struggling with sensitive feelings.

“Everyone is looking for a solution to this problem,” says Matthew Warrens, Vice President of Innovation Partnerships at OSF HealthCare, which serves Illinois and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with a portfolio of more than 20 digital health services for behavioral healthcare. “Anxiety and depression are complex problems that you’re not curing someone of.”

In some cases, Warrens says, health system executives find that they have behavioral health services but no structured behavioral health platform. The organization has to combine those resources before mapping out an effective strategy to offer them online.

Telemental and telebehavioral health services are among the most common telehealth services now being offered, due in large part to strong demand. A recent survey conducted by UPMC’s Center for Connected Medicine of the nation’s largest health systems found that 58 percent are offering mental health services through telemedicine and digital health platforms, while one third are planning on adding the service.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is also keeping an eye on the space. This past fall, CMS officials said they’re considering “a potential payment or service delivery model to improve healthcare quality and access, while lowering the cost of care for Medicare, Medicaid or CHIP beneficiaries with behavioral health conditions.” 

Froedtert and OSF HealthCare are among a growing number of health systems looking to simplify the process for those with mild to moderate mental healthcare needs. They want an online platform that patients can access on their own and go through a treatment regimen that lasts anywhere from eight weeks to eight months. In both cases, they chose platforms developed by Massachusetts-based SilverCloud Health

With Froedtert’s platform, patients log on weekly to complete an asynchronous module and are tested every few weeks. That data is screened by a care team member who offers feedback on a regular basis. The program runs eight to 12 weeks and can be re-taken for up to a year.

“Our biggest challenge is to get people to log on for the first time,” says Anderes.

At OSF HealthCare, meanwhile, patients are assigned to virtual coaches. Warrens says the health systems might someday carve out a separate platform for asynchronous online care or even transition out of the coaching platform if it’s not effective.

“There’s no single winner in the care management space,” says Warrens, who estimates there are more than 200 digital health platforms now on the market, ranging from consumer-facing apps to online care platforms. “You’re looking for something that works for you.”

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