During the pandemic, many people have reached out for mental health services, including existing patients and others who’ve never sought treatment before.
“Just living with this constant level of unpredictability, I think takes its toll,” says Dr. Jay Shore, a psychiatrist and chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s telepsychiatry committee.
He says throughout the pandemic, people have been struggling with a variety of mental, emotional, and behavioral concerns, including anxiety, depression, substance use and addiction, stress and burnout, pressure from social media, and more. Patients can have different levels of mental health needs, ranging from talk therapy to medication.
While telemedicine, including telepsychiatry, has been used in recent years, it became mainstream during the pandemic. Virtual appointments can happen in a live, interactive format over the phone, on video, or through an app. They can also involve recorded medical information such as videos and images to be viewed later.
Telepsychiatry has the same diagnostic accuracy, treatment effectiveness, quality of care, and patient satisfaction as in-person care. Patient privacy and confidentiality are the same as well.
Growing demand for telehealth
According to a public opinion poll of 1,000 U.S. adults by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the largest psychiatric association in the world, nearly 40 percent of respondents have used telehealth services to meet with a medical or mental health professional since fall 2020.
Nearly 60 percent of respondents in 2021 said they would use telehealth services for mental healthcare as well, a 10 percent increase from the year before. Long term, many Americans (43 percent) would like to continue using telehealth when the pandemic is over.
Younger patients, ages 18 to 29, report the most interest (66 percent) in using telehealth for mental health services, compared to those 65 or older (36 percent). The poll found video telehealth visits are the preferred format, compared to phone calls only.
Scheduling mental health appointments has been challenging for patients during the pandemic. One in three respondents to the APA’s poll reported difficulty scheduling an appointment in the past several years.
“Even before the pandemic, getting access to good mental healthcare in a timely manner could be really challenging,” says Dr. Shore, noting patients can wait six to 12 weeks for their first appointment, making it tough for those who want help right away.
Factors impacting the ability to get an appointment can include if the provider has availability, if they’re accepting new patients, or if insurance covers the provider’s services.
Telemedicine may help reduce some patients’ barriers to care, including lack of transportation, convenience if they can’t take time off from work, or if they have family responsibilities.
Dr. Shore, who’s been in the field 20 years and is a professor at the University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus, says it’s here to stay and is adapting.
“We’re in this new era where, as providers, we’re trying to figure out how to hold and best manage what we call ‘hybrid patient-provider relationships’ across these different mediums,” he says.
“So, how do you work with the patient in front of you with their needs? What is the best way to connect with them on a given day? Some days, you need to see them in person to render the best care. Some days a phone call may be sufficient, some days video conferencing. We’re entering this interesting new era where we’re really learning how to tailor this menu of different options to get the best treatment.”
Dr. Shore says some patients, such as those who’ve experienced trauma or abuse, prefer video or phone visits because it allows them to feel more in control. Plus, he says telemedicine is helping reduce some of the stigma of seeking and receiving mental health services.
“Everyone has had some challenges in the last few years,” he says. “People now realize that everyone, at some point in their lives, has stress and can seek help.’”
APA has more mental health resources online: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families