Stay six feet apart. Shelter at home. These directives seem simple until you consider the chasm they create for people facing mental health challenges—and the agencies that provide their care.
Behavioral health and human services providers serve our communities’ most vulnerable populations. In March, as the COVID-19 threat became apparent and in-person care would soon become impossible, the need for this $200 billion industry to make a sudden and smooth transition to a virtual setting was essential.
Of all the changes in care over the last few months, the explosion of telehealth services has been perhaps the most visible. The stakes are incredibly high as people in many communities no longer feel safe getting the in-person help they need. Adding virtual services to traditional behavioral health offerings has improved the chance of connecting them to care.
Of all the changes in care over the last few months, the explosion of telehealth services has been perhaps the most visible.
The behavioral health and human services community has taken this challenge as an opportunity. Among many other findings, a recent survey of behavioral health providers by Qualifacts and the National Council for Behavioral Health shows just how rapidly they evolved in the area of virtual care:
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 93 percent of providers said they were providing less than 20 percent of their care virtually.
Now, more than 60 percent report that they are providing more than 81 percent of their care virtually.
Even with that rapid adoption, there were significant roadblocks. For instance, sheltering at home makes effective treatment for people with substance abuse disorder much more difficult. And many people accustomed to the therapist’s office had serious reservations about communicating via computer screen or by phone instead. Many of these challenges remain. And make no mistake, in-person visits are and will remain a vital and key component to any behavioral health provider’s makeup.
Still, as the world begins to look beyond the first wave of COVID-19 and consider the dilemma of how best to proceed in a “new normal,” behavioral health providers are analyzing the heightened role virtual care now plays in their business and treatment models. While the need may decline as states and communities reopen, the new service-delivery makeup is unlikely to resemble the pre-COVID landscape.
As they assess their options going forward, providers are not going it alone. They have been very vocal about their operational needs, especially when it comes to such core operational services as electronic health records. And we have listened. Qualifacts is supporting the industry with new infrastructure to support telehealth services, for instance, as well as enhancing existing platforms to support other aspects of virtual care.
The next essential matter of business is effectively advocating for providers’ needs through the rest of the crisis and beyond. Behavioral health and human services providers have done a remarkable job of pivoting to a virtual world. They have protected their employees and maintained a lifeline to their clients. As an intensely regulated industry, they now must convince state and federal authorities to make permanent the loosened restrictions around virtual services and reimbursement so that they can continue to deploy the new, effective tools they have put in place.
We are working with many different partners, as well as providers themselves, to amplify their voice. It’s vital that the positive results of virtual care be supported by continued stimulus and other funding at the state and federal level. Telehealth has enormous benefits beyond the COVID-19 crisis for both patients and providers, and the lessons being learned now will continue to pay dividends for months and years to come.
The COVID-19 pandemic could easily have been catastrophic for the American behavioral health and human services community. Through dedication, innovation, and ongoing support, it will come through this crisis not only intact but improved.