May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The pandemic sharply increased the demand for behavioral health services, and digital solutions proved to be a popular solution. This article explores changing consumer preferences and how care delivery organizations can use digital technology to support patients seeking mental health care.
Demand for Digital Mental Health Care is Increasing
The demand for mental health care services has grown drastically over the past three years. According to Kaiser Family Foundation data, outpatient visits related to mental health or substance use diagnoses increased from 11 percent in 2019 to 39 percent in 2021.
In April 2020, the Food and Drug Administration loosened regulations on mental health applications so that people would not have to go without support during the difficult early days of the pandemic. This decision allowed for rapid growth in direct-to-consumer mental health treatment through apps like Headspace and BetterHelp. As a result, venture capital firms invested more than $2.4 billion in digital behavioral health apps in 2020- more than twice the amount invested in 2019.
As the public health emergency will likely wind down this year, organizations must figure out how to continue to meet consumers’ preferences for mental health care. Many consumers prefer the convenience and privacy that digital alternatives offer.
Why Use Digital Alternatives
Although people first turned to digital alternatives out of necessity, it is clear that many patients now prefer digital alternatives. Mental health care is particularly suited to digital treatments, as physical examinations are often not required for diagnosis and treatment.
In addition, digital alternatives can help limit stigma and reduce stress. Accessing care at home means that running into neighbors in the waiting room is physically impossible. Digital options offer privacy and discretion. People can access care without worrying that someone will find out about it.
Even better, patients can access digital mental health care at almost any time and location. This increases access to care for people with demanding work and family schedules, limited transportation, and other reasons they cannot come into a traditional medical office during regular office hours. An internet connection is all that is needed to talk to a mental health professional.
Finally, digital alternatives enable individuals who are members of underserved groups to connect with mental health professionals who understand their experiences. For example, removing geographic restrictions can allow an LGBT person to meet with a therapist who accepts their identity and has experience working with individuals of different gender and sexual identities. Increasing patient satisfaction leads to better health outcomes.
Barriers to Digital Mental Health Care
A report from athenahealth found that even though there is a growing demand for mental health services, many adults still do not have access to the care they want and need.
High-speed broadband access is still not widespread or affordable enough to support digital health options for many individuals living in rural areas. Federal and state governments are working with internet service providers on solutions, but it remains an issue for rural and poorer patient populations.
People are also concerned about the cost of mental health treatment and possible insurance issues. Many insurance plans do not cover mental health treatment. High out-of-pocket health costs can lead people to postpone or avoid care, producing poorer health outcomes and raising overall healthcare spending.
Mental health stigma is also a barrier to care. Nearly one-quarter (24%) of the athenahealth survey respondents reported feeling judgment from family members when talking about mental health. Removing cultural barriers to treatment is a complex issue that needs to be addressed to ensure that everyone has access to the care they need.
Digital mental health care is likely here to stay. For mental health professionals offering telehealth and digital care, remember to use secure communications. As the FDA re-instates regulations, insecure texting, email, and video will no longer be secure enough for patient communications. Contact LuxSci today if you want to learn more about protecting digital mental health care communications.