Telehealth opens paths to behavioral healthcare

Focused older 80s patient consulting with doctor via video call Since the COVID-19 outbreak, more Americans have reported experiencing stress, anxiety or great sadness. In addition, studies are exploring the unique mental health burden on healthcare workers and other first responders. COVID-19 will continue to exert profound mental, physical and economic impacts in the near and long term. Virtual care delivery can boost patient access to behavioral healthcare during the current pandemic and beyond it. With strong patient and provider interest, healthcare organizations adopting virtual behavioral care can expect to find not only increasing acceptance but also rising demand and satisfaction.

Expand delivery pathways through technology COVID-19 is challenging public health and healthcare systems, but it is also proving that behavioral healthcare needs can be efficiently addressed through technology. Benefits accrue to both patients and providers of telehealth and virtual care models including econsults, remote patient monitoring and securing messaging. And virtual care can scale access in ways often not possible through traditional, clinic-based models due to social barriers, such as stigma, and provider shortages. According to 2019 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, there were enough mental health care professionals to meet only 27% of need across the nation. The provider gap will likely widen, given increased demand along with healthcare workforce shortages due to the pandemic, according to 2020 CDC data. Technology, along with enabling regulatory provisions, can help extend access through connectivity across more points of service.

Expanding pathways to behavioral healthcare is imperative but doing so poses a new set of patient engagement considerations including cultural competency, access to hardware and tech literacy. Just as organizations tailor patient engagement strategies for in-person care, telehealth solutions require the same cultural sensitivity and operational vigor to ensure that patients in virtual settings are provided with the highest standard care.

Improve care delivery through technology Investment in and deployment of technology solutions can improve practice resource utilization, efficiencies, and patient and staff experiences.

Efficient and safe care
Recalibrated models and processes for virtual and in-person care
Location-based monitoring for check-in, rooming and check-out
Remote monitoring to supplement care management

High-value documentation
Scheduling, registration, clinical documentation and communication
Automation and natural language processing for speed and accuracy

Human-centric solutions
Addressing workforce safety, shortages and burnout
Training and change management for adopting new technologies
Communications with patients for understanding and engagement

Understand the uncertainty in reimbursement and compliance Despite broad economic uncertainty due to the pandemic, investment in digital health companies is surging. However, policy and payment uncertainty could stifle long-term transformation in the provider landscape. Your approach could be to align revenue cycle practices with commercial and government payer requirements to maximize reimbursement amid new administrative complexities and risk. A proactive approach to payer compliance will help to prevent unnecessary denials and revenue delays.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has temporarily eased patient cost-sharing requirements and allowed 135 new services to be provided through telehealth. But until these changes ae permanently coded, fragmented coverage will perpetuate health disparities and limit the benefits of virtual care. This would leave these technologies available only to those who can afford them.

Regulation has adjusted but not yet landed. CMS eased Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) penalties for good-faith telehealth services provide through proper applications, e.g., Skype, in response to COVID-19. However, restrictions around patient date privacy and communications will likely go back into effect. Patient-facing applications have not always demonstrated rigorous data security practices. These concerns must be addressed. Your organization should expect a future in which it will be held to more rigorous virtual care standards.

For now, use temporary regulatory easing to pilot and refine policies and procedures. This period will pass, so act now to reinforce a reliable, safe and effective virtual model for service lines with applications that include behavioral health.

Assess critical domains for success
Explore the path to deliver virtual care Not waiting for the picture of future regulation and reimbursement to sharpen, providers are busy delivering virtual health services now. Early adopters devising a holistic virtual behavioral healthcare model will be equipping themselves for the industry’s future development. The National Center for Quality Assurance has already expanded 12 behavioral health quality measures to encompass virtual care criteria. Healthcare organizations can use virtual health as an opportunity to reclaim proactive strategic planning and position themselves as leaders in population health management and innovation.

As your organization moves toward its future in virtual care, you could begin by taking two steps – one pragmatic, the other more philosophical:

  1. Assess and optimize IT hardware, network, applications, data governance and security, and vendor contracts to strengthen enterprise foundations for virtual care delivery. Ensure appropriate IT protocols for improving end user support and patient access.
  2. Integrate virtual care as a central component of care pathways, patient experience and cultural competency strategies. Differentiate and mature your telehealth program by focusing on quality and compassionate virtual are so that patients seek out and return to your services.

Virtual care isn’t equivalent to in-person care but rather a unique delivery mode that supplements care plans and incentivizes organizations to promote device access and usage among their patients. Industry interest in social determinants of health has provided a new opportunity to address social barriers to virtual care. The COVID-19 challenge has heightened that opportunity to a mandate.

Organizations that take a holistic approach to virtual behavioral healthcare spanning technology, operations and people enablement will be the most successful in meeting this critical care need. The COVID-19 crisis has challenged our public health and healthcare systems, but it has also shown that behavioral healthcare needs can be efficiently addressed through the use of technology. The next step toward a more resilient care continuum is investing in behavioral health technology solutions and building the future of virtual healthcare.


David TylerDavid Tyler
National Managing Partner Healthcare
T +1 404 475 1080