Direct-to-Consumer Telehealth: The Disruptive Solution to the Behavioral Health Provider Shortage
By Scott Baker, MBA,
The link between behavioral health and medical outcomes is well understood. Providing behavioral health services can help keep some medical conditions in check and prevent hospitalizations and readmissions. However, more than half of US counties are currently without any psychiatrists, resulting in large care gaps and wait times of up to 3 to 6 months. As a result, many patients seek mental health services from primary care providers, who often lack both time and specialized psychiatric expertise to treat such conditions. A more dire situation arises when patients are discouraged from seeking treatment altogether, which can lead to further deterioration or crisis situations.
Amid this provider shortage and growing behavioral health crisis, telepsychiatry is emerging as an effective tool to meet providers’ referral needs. In addition, direct-to-consumer (D2C) telepsychiatry is becoming a more widely utilized treatment option—one that can fill gaps in care at a time when the need for services far outpaces provider supply and address issues before they escalate.
By enabling provider-patient interaction at any time from any location, D2C telehealth helps increase access to care and promotes a more comprehensive response to patient needs, whether physical or behavioral. Making care more convenient often leads to earlier interventions that help ensure patient needs are addressed before issues escalate and require higher-cost interventions.
D2C telepsychiatry: A natural fit for telehealth
The American Telemedicine Association defines telehealth as “the remote delivery of healthcare services and clinical information using telecommunications technology.” The more popular forms of telehealth rely on real-time videoconferencing to deliver services and address patients’ needs, emulating the kind of in-person exchange and connectivity experienced in a provider’s office setting. Continued growth of D2C telehealth underscores the attractiveness of the videoconferencing model, as patients—increasingly empowered in their own care choices—seek direct access to providers and alternative options to more conveniently manage their care.
When it comes to telehealth for behavioral health, telepsychiatry is now used for evaluation, consultation, and treatment throughout the care continuum, and it can be found in settings that range from acute inpatient settings and emergency departments (EDs) to community-based care environments and in-home referrals from primary care doctors and discharge planners.
D2C telepsychiatry takes the burden off primary care providers and expands referral options in areas lacking adequate psychiatric services. With additional providers available, patients are empowered with greater choice, rather than limited by what is within a drivable radius. Beyond primary care providers, community-based professionals such as referral coordinators, benefit managers, and discharge planners can leverage this option to help consumers access qualified behavioral health specialists in a timely manner.
Collaborative care between telepsychiatry providers and patients’ primary care and regular providers can also extend the value proposition of D2C telepsychiatry by improving coordination, increasing clinical exchanges and connecting a patient’s community of caretakers for more holistic care.
The advantages of D2C
D2C telepsychiatry delivers inherent advantages for both patients and providers, including:
Flexibility. Consumers can schedule appointments outside of traditional weekday time slots, including nights and weekends, and can often find available appointments within a few days of their request.
Convenience. Services can be accessed from any private location leading to better continuity of care. For example, consumers can continue treatment with the same psychiatric provider during life transitions, such as moving to a new city for college.
Privacy. Like in-person care, telepsychiatry protects the privacy of patients. In fact, confidentiality may be heightened since appointments are accessed from home, eliminating the potential that patients will see someone they know in a waiting room—a concern that keeps many from seeking out treatment.
High-quality care. Telepsychiatry meets the standard of traditional in-person care for diagnostic accuracy, treatment effectiveness, quality of care, and patient satisfaction. Along with all major national healthcare associations, the American Psychiatric Association supports the use of this model.
Healthcare organizations interested in utilizing D2C telehealth and telepsychiatry should, of course, consider situational nuances prior to determining the best course of treatment. Conditions such as anxiety, depression, stress, life transitions, childhood mood disorders, and ADHD align well with D2C telepsychiatry. However, it is not appropriate for patients who display suicidal, homicidal, delusional or paranoid symptoms.
In addition, providers should keep in mind that while most people have access to reliable internet connections and smart devices that can support telepsychiatry, not everyone has this luxury. Prior to making referrals, providers should assess a patient’s ability to follow through with the telepsychiatry option.
The potential of D2C telepsychiatry
D2C telehealth models, and specifically telepsychiatry, represent a disruptive care delivery movement that is laying the groundwork for a more connected community and collaborative care continuum. By improving access, these forward-thinking models of care promote early intervention, addressing issues before they escalate and require higher-cost interventions. Ultimately, it’s an optimal framework for improving outcomes and empowering consumers in their care.