Benefits of Telehealth Use During Pandemic

Since March, the public health crisis caused by COVID-19 has changed many things about our day-to-day lives, including the way our patients access care and the way psychiatrists practice medicine. These changes have been driven by distancing guidelines meant to curtail the spread of the corona virus and protect doctors, patients and their families.

To ensure that patients can continue to receive regular psychiatric care, federal and state governments have responded to the public health crisis by easing restrictions around telehealth related to live video sessions, audio-only psychotherapy, electronic prescribing, and more. These changes have eliminated barriers to care for patients, especially by lifting geographical restrictions and allowing patients to be seen in their home.

The use of telehealth was on the rise before COVID-19 and has become an essential tool for physicians everywhere as the global pandemic continues. Governments and organizations must ensure to have the resources they need to adapt to these changes and meet the challenges of practicing medicine during the pandemic.

Doctors and Therapists responded practice in a variety of settings, including solo practice, hospitals, academic settings, group settings, and community mental health centers. Most accept some form of insurance, with about a majority being self-pay.

Organizations reported a big jump in the use of telehealth to see patients since the onset of the pandemic. Before, 62% reported seeing none of their patients via telehealth, while after the onset of the pandemic, 86% of respondents are now seeing nearly all of their patients via telehealth.

While not surprising given the circumstances, this trend does tell us that adopting telehealth into a practice can be done quickly, especially when numerous regulatory barriers are eliminated. Telehealth seems to be making it easier for our patients to not only access a psychiatrist, but also regularly keep their appointments. Being able to keep appointments is a strong indicator of eventual patient outcomes, so there has been a dramatic decrease in no-shows of the patients.

The ability to have audio-only (telephone) telehealth services covered for reimbursement at the same rate of regular telehealth is another possible reason for high patient satisfaction and the downward trend in no-shows. Service providers are using audio-only when bandwidth or video technology was unavailable. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services (CMS) and some private payers were not covering audio-only telehealth prior to the pandemic.

Moving forward, audio-only telehealth must continue to be covered, especially for the benefit of patients who lack access to live video technology or for those who live in areas without sufficient access to broadband internet.

It is paramount that our patients continue to have access to high-quality care via telehealth, both during and after the public health crisis subsides, and that psychiatrists can rely on being able to treat patients using telepsychiatry without encountering regulatory hurdles.

Psychiatrists can adapt telehealth quickly and successfully when the path forward is cleared of such hurdles. Psychiatrists and Therapists are ready to integrate telehealth into their practice.

As we move on, I urge all of us to wear masks, wash hands frequently or use hand sanitizers, maintain six feet of separation and ensure that if you do go out to eat the safest place to eat is sitting outside.

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