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New research from the Oregon Health & Science University reports findings after reviewing the records of 101.7 million outpatient mental health visits. Noting variability in telehealth adoption in their sample, Jane Zhu, MD, and colleagues found that the highest adoption rate was among people who struggle with anxiety disorders.
Telehealth for Mental Health Preference Depending on Conditions
Telehealth was most popular with people struggling with anxiety and fear-related disorders. The group of people who preferred telehealth for anxiety ( 27.5%) was larger than those who preferred in-person visits (25.5%).
On the other hand, those treated for schizophrenia did not prefer telemental health visits (1.7%) to in-person visits (2.7%). Also, Black and Hispanic people living alone and those with lower incomes were less likely to opt for telemental health. However, the researchers posited that a possible cause for the difference may have been a lack of access to technology or a lack of skills required to use the necessary technology.
The Study’s Findings Regarding Telehealth for Mental Health
Dr. Zhu and colleagues used a nongovernmental claims clearinghouse to analyze data from 2016 to 2018 and compare the pandemic period from March to December 2020. They reviewed a total of 101.7 million outpatient mental health visits. They identified people ages twelve and older who encountered primary diagnosis codes corresponding to mental health conditions and categorized encounters as in-person or telehealth, using Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) and place-of-service codes.
Findings showed that in-person mental health visits declined by 21.9% after the start of the pandemic, even though it produced a climate that exacerbated mental issues. However, the industry quickly rebounded as many patients opted for telehealth for mental health treatment, with 47.9% transitioning to telehealth by the end of the year.
Future of Telemental Health
While predicting a strong growth trajectory for telemental health, the researchers highlight the importance of broadening access to services through new modalities without supplanting necessary in-person care for certain groups. They concluded: Although reducing regulatory and payment barriers may improve access to care, increased reliance on telehealth could exacerbate existing health care disparities or worsen care outcomes for other populations, particularly if access to broadband internet is limited in some regions or unavailable to lower-income or clinically vulnerable populations. They continued, Future research is needed to understand how telehealth modalities can best improve equitable access to mental health care in the face of increased overall demand.
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