Sponsored by eVisit
December 19, 2022 – After reaching new heights during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth use is leveling off in several clinical care areas. But there is one prominent exception: behavioral healthcare.
Healthcare stakeholders are continuing to flock to telehealth for behavioral health services. An analysis of data from January 2020 to March 2022 shows that mental health conditions were the most common telehealth diagnoses at the national level.
In addition, data shows that amid a drop in overall telehealth use since 2020, telemental healthcare has grown. In the first quarter of 2019, 32.4 percent of all telehealth visits were related to behavioral healthcare, according to a market research report. That figure jumped to 59.9 percent by Q1 2022.
This data, along with the ongoing mental health crisis in America, signifies the importance of providing virtual care options for behavioral healthcare.
At Michigan-based Easterseals MORC, telehealth has been integral to behavioral healthcare delivery since 2019. Then, amid the pandemic, the organization saw its virtual visit volumes skyrocket, and they continue to show no signs of slowing down.
“We went from 25 telehealth users before the pandemic to 300,” says Clarissa Hulleza, Chief Information Officer of Easterseals MORC. “Those numbers are still going up. We’re not seeing any decrease.”
WHY THE ORGANIZATION IMPLEMENTED TELEHEALTH
Easterseals MORC, an affiliate of the national Easterseals organization, serves over 21,000 individuals annually. It provides a wide array of behavioral health services, including therapy, psychiatric care, and substance abuse treatment, as well as long-term care for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
In 2019, the organization decided to implement a telehealth solution. One of the key goals of the move was to expand access to behavioral healthcare across the state.
“The reason we pursued a telehealth solution was so that people who couldn’t get to us regularly or at all, could be provided the opportunity to still receive care,” says Hulleza. “We serve all of Michigan, and not all of Michigan has access to transportation, or maybe their closest local provider is 20 miles away. So, it was really creating more opportunities for access.”
Additionally, telemedicine was already becoming popular as a mode of physical healthcare delivery, prompting behavioral healthcare providers to catch up.
“It was one of those, ‘well, why aren’t we doing the same?'” Hulleza says.
Easterseals MORC partnered with eVisit to launch a telehealth pilot program in May 2019. A little under a year later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, compelling providers across the country to rapidly scale up their telehealth programs.
According to Hulleza, already having a telehealth solution and vendor partnership in place enabled Easterseals MORC to expand virtual care use seamlessly.
“I would say that the absolute benefit was that we never had to close our doors,” she adds. “In a time that people needed behavioral healthcare the most, we were able to provide it.”
IMPLEMENTATION CHALLENGES AND KEY LESSONS LEARNED
Easterseals MORC leverages telehealth for nearly all of its services, including case management, one-on-one and group therapy. The organization even provided Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy virtually, which aims to improve social behaviors using interventions.
But implementing a telehealth solution for behavioral healthcare has its challenges. For Easterseals MORC, those challenges ranged from clinician training to technology issues among those receiving services.
Clinicians were not only providing care in a new way, they also had to become tech support in helping those they served navigate the new technology. Training is a critical aspect of telehealth technology implementation. If training is not provided proactively, it can result in clinicians avoiding virtual care use as they might find it difficult and overwhelming.
“Pilot testing the solution before a full rollout was critical to ensuring that clinicians had adequate training to use the technology and that workflows were not negatively impacted,” Hulleza says. Partnering with the right vendor was a vital aspect of this effort, as the vendor was able to provide clinician training resources as well as suggest new policies and processes required to promote and support the telehealth program.
“Ultimately, we selected our vendor because we were looking for a partnership that would improve the overall behavioral healthcare delivery experience. This meant that we needed a tool that offered more than a two-way video solution — one that integrated with, and empowered, the clinical workflow with value-added technology,” Hulleza shares. “There were multiple tools in the marketplace that solved the video connection challenge, but Easterseals MORC was looking to do more than simply move the clinical interaction to a video screen.”
Further, choosing the right partner and then piloting the telehealth solution allowed the organization to test the supporting technology infrastructure before a full rollout. Easterseals MORC tested laptop specifications and made sure the solution worked equally well on different devices, including mobile phones and tablets.
“We even went as far as making sure our bandwidth at all of our locations was increased so that if we had 20 people doing telehealth at the same time, there wouldn’t be any degradation in services,” Hulleza says.
On the side of those receiving services, Easterseals MORC had to consider the digital divide facing its population.
“ don’t always have the newest phones, the best bandwidth,” she says. “They don’t have the luxury of going to a bedroom and closing the door. They might have shared living arrangements. We had to make sure we were accommodating all of those things.”
To address individuals’ technology access needs, the organization applied for various grants and used those to provide iPads and iPhones with built-in data plans.
Another essential aspect of closing the digital divide is identifying the viability of an individual to receive services via telehealth. Easterseals MORC uses a checklist tool provided by the telehealth vendor to identify these individuals and the barriers they face.
“Do you have a private place? Do you have a microphone? What model phone do you have or mobile device?” Hulleza adds. “The tool goes through all of these questions and allows providers to evaluate if telehealth is an option.”
Easterseals MORC plans to solidify telehealth as a key behavioral health delivery mechanism within its business. It is unclear if Congress will make the temporary telehealth flexibilities enacted during the pandemic permanent — but for Hulleza, there is no going back.
“I absolutely want to grow telehealth here,” she says. “The need amplified because of the pandemic, but telehealth was going to exist for our organization even if the pandemic didn’t happen.”
eVisit is an enterprise virtual care delivery platform built for health systems and hospitals. It delivers innovative virtual experiences in care navigation, care delivery, and care engagement, improving margins at scale without sacrificing quality or patient and provider satisfaction. eVisit works seamlessly across enterprise service lines and departments to improve outcomes, reduce costs, and boost revenue. Based in Phoenix, Ariz., eVisit helps healthcare organizations innovate and succeed in today’s changing healthcare market.