Digital Transformation of Mental Health Care

A few things inspired me to write this particular post! I think it is on brand with the content I have been sharing so far, especially the on-call-related material. Additionally, if anyone has tried to access mental health care, like scheduling time with a therapist or counselor, it can be incredibly difficult. 

For individuals who are looking to speak with a counselor because they are struggling or they need some support, the process is quite counterintuitive. You would first check the tools you have available to you, either through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) through your employer or you would check what your insurance company has in network nearby. You would then be responsible for calling each of the available providers, seeing who is accepting patients, and finding a provider who is specializing in what you are looking for (family support, anxiety, depression, etc.). Once all of this is done, you then need to find time in your likely busy work day to drive to a provider, have the actual therapy session, then return to work. While therapy is an incredible tool and can be so helpful in assisting people with their mental health and well-being, the way it existed pre-pandemic made it incredibly inaccessible for many people. 

With the pandemic eliminating many in-person services and creating heightened anxiety and feelings of isolation for many people, therapy became more essential than ever. Using the tools available, therapists transitioned to the telehealth format and increased access to their services by eliminating the travel concerns and the risk of being in person. However, the demand far outweighed the availability of therapists (who, like the rest of us, are just trying to find some work-life balance) so there are several practices who were/are not accepting patients. To fill some of the need, companies began providing additional resources available through some of the following apps

Ginger (in collaboration with Headspace)

Ginger is an online platform that has levels of help available: trained behavioral health coaches, therapists, or psychiatrists. Each level of care provided has more lead time, with the health coaches available on demand. Ginger has paired with major insurance providers and with employers nationwide who are looking to care for their employees’ mental health and wellbeing 

Talkspace

Talkspace is a similar online platform that provides different types of therapy and help, but breaks down cost by type of therapy provided: individual, couples, teen, or medication management (with a psychiatrist). They have you fill out a brief questionnaire to connect you with the right resources and go from there. They also offer an initial discount of $100 a month and take most national insurance providers. Similarly, BetterHelp provides a similar online platform.

Benefits 

Almost shockingly, this very personal service has transitioned well to virtual platforms, with many younger folks preferring to meet virtually. The studies performed on patient outcomes and satisfaction find that care provided through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) were essentially the same as in-person care.

Accessibility is a huge benefit with the transition to online platforms. For people who work from 9-5 pm, therapy was often difficult to schedule. With the ability to contact therapists via texting, phone call, or Zoom video chat, there is more flexibility instead of a traditional 50-minute session. You can schedule a session before or after work or briefly check in without committing to the hour session. There is also no need to drive or travel anywhere, allowing people without vehicles or the time to travel to access therapy equally. 

The apps are also available to a large group of people, meaning they have a variety of therapists to choose from. If someone does not click with their originally assigned therapist, they are able to choose from other available providers. There are also available algorithms utilized by these services to help the matches be successful from the start, including specialities and if any identities would be preferred in their provider. 

The transition to virtual therapy has also decreased the amount companies are spending on overhead for in person practices, as therapists are able to provide care from virtually anywhere (pun intended). 

Remaining Challenges to Tackle: 

Cost can still be a prohibitive factor in access to mental health care, given the following: 

  • Monthly fees for the apps. Talkspace can cost $260 to $396 monthly, depending on the plan you select. 
  • Cost of insurance and copays for traditional appointment therapy. Great insurance plans will cover some (or most) of therapy sessions but depending on the plan you have, it can be challenging to find someone who is in network, taking new patients, and fits with your schedule. 

Therapists have been working to keep up with demand, but are currently experiencing burn out in the same way many professions are. Given the on-demand nature of the support offered through the apps, this means they are essentially always available for their clients. This is not a reasonable expectation for any person or profession, and may end up creating a more dire shortage of qualified mental health professionals. 

It has been incredible to see the conversation surrounding mental health become destigmatized, as this has now allowed people to see they deserve the help and support they may benefit from. It will be important for employers to provide resources for their employees to access mental health and wellness resources and simultaneously important for therapists to set boundaries before they burn out. These online tools and resources are helping to bridge the gap between current supply and demand. 

Sources: 

https://hbr.org/2020/12/digital-tools-are-revolutionizing-mental-health-care-in-the-u-s

https://www.visibacare.com/en-gb/mental-health-digital-transformation/

14 comments

  1. Your blog reminds me of a tweet I sent out a couple weeks ago, regarding therapists accessing data from their patients’ smartphone data. The tweet essentially explained how researchers are studying tools that could give therapists a stream of patient information between sessions—and intervene if the situation deemed necessary. As you touched on, technology -and our subsequent interactions with it- have become apart of our daily routine, so incorporating digital avenues for either therapy itself or an enhanced therapy experience will be more beneficial to mental health care long term.

  2. I’ve been amazed at how seamless the telehealth transition has become, especially for mental healthcare professionals. I’m constantly hearing of betterhelp ads on the podcasts that I listen to, and I’ve always been curious to try it out, as you said, it feels more accessible now than ever before. Do you think more therapsists will be offering in-person sessions more frequently once COVID restrictions are gone, or do you believe the industry has changed to become telehealth first?

  3. Love your blog! We are finally breaking the misconceptions of mental health. Digital transformation empowers people to speak out openly, but the most crucial part is the flexibility and accessibility of the healthcare industry using technology. When I was a little kid, I watched the news, and they were talking about telemedicine. I never thought it was going to become and thing. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Great blog!

  4. Thanks for the great post, Shannon! I will say that one of the obvious digital transformations needed (which could help easy some of the stress you mention that takes place during the scheduling process) is to create easy online booking!! This is the case for all doctors – how painful is it to sit on the phone with a receptionist trying a bunch of different times out just for a tooth cleaning?! Drives me up a wall.

    While I see the value in telehealth and the convenience for it in terms of mental health care, I do wonder about its effectiveness. I sort of question the legitimacy of telehealth in general, so take this with a grain of salt, but I just don’t think a virtual session is the same — especially when you have the video screen and you’re basically just looking at yourself. I appreciate the technology, but wonder if, like sports in Rob’s post, that the existence of people and in-person interactions overshadows the digital transformation (and should be limited).

  5. I have seen an increase in ads/promotions for mental health; however, I believe it is a crucial topic that many people still underestimate today. As you mentioned, the pandemic brought mental health providers closer to patients making it more accessible and allowing people to chat to their therapist from the comfort of their homes. I think digital transformation is helping revolutionize the mental health space; however, money is still an issue. I wonder hater health insurance services should change the way they cover these expenses to allow even more people to have access to a mental health specialist?

  6. What are your thoughts on face-to-face interaction when dealing with mental health? Body language, facial expressions, the tone in one’s voice amongst other key characteristics therapists watch for during sessions are invaluable. I don’t see the trend of telehealth continuing for mental health, counseling, or therapy in general. It might make sense on occasion when there’s actually no time for both parties to meet, and the client wants to have a conversation, but when it’s feasible, then a visit to the office will never hurt. I wasn’t aware of the companies you enumerated above in your post, so I appreciate you for bringing them to my attention. I know of several folks in need of these resources and now having them in my back pocket can help cheer someone up.

  7. Great post! I think it was crucial to have these services during the pandemic. For a lot of these patients the hardest part is setting up that initial appointment. When it can be done easily, it makes them more willing to get help. So, I hope these services help people make those initial appointments and continue to seek help. Affordability is definitely huge roadblock for mental health care. I have a friend who expressed how she loved that she can now have her therapy session online. Often times, for these people its not the physical presence that matters most but the ability to have consistent and timely conversations with a professional that matters most.

  8. What a great post! I’m surprised to see how expensive the platforms still are – although I suppose that makes sense because the patient is still receiving the same quality and duration of care (vs. spending a $35 copay or more for a < 5-minute telehealth visit with a doctor during the pandemic!). I also thought it was super interesting how you highlighted the impact that increased demand has had on the therapists – I wonder if/when the chatbots and robots are going to be called in to start helping with fielding clients! All kidding aside, I'm curious if there IS a way to deploy bots or other digital mechanisms to help in certain circumstances.

  9. Great post. I absolutely think that therapy is one of those things that could be done very effectively over Zoom. The challenge would be finding a good fit among the multiple choices.

  10. Super interesting!
    I completely agree, we’ll see a major impact of Digital Technologies on therapy. I think that AI could really help therapists take great decisions. Example:
    “A patient with similar characteristics could get over this illness ( anxiety ) by going into the mountains for some time…”
    Data could really improve the experience and yeah, it could all be done over Zoom. However, I really like to be there, I think it is important.

  11. Great post! I also agree that therapy can be effective over Zoom. I have a friend who had mental health issues during the pandemic and got an online therapist. The therapist really helped him get out of depression and it was entirely over zoom! The fact that such services are available to us through different mediums makes it convenient for all.

  12. My company has offered headspace over the past two years as a response to the covid crisis. I’ve found it to be a valuable tool, but a lot of the information seems like common sense to me. For example: remember to go outside and get exercise! Remote therapy is another great call out as something that can truly help folks feel less isolated.

  13. great post, I think that virtual counselling is great for all the reasons expressed above but also could be a bridge for in person therapy. If individuals are suffering from agoraphobia or anxiety or shame around seeking help, virtual therapy can be the first step in gradual exposure to in person therapy.

  14. Every day it feels as though I’m seeing an article headline saying how mental health has never been worse since the start of the pandemic. Over the past 18+ months we have been beaten down by a pandemic, an uncertain economy, and an overall uncertain world.

    As a result, therapy has never been more important. I have several friends who use Talkspace and have benefited greatly from it. They now can have support from their own home while still developing a trusting relationship with someone to help them through the hard times. I was skeptical of these remote mental health services at first, but they appear to be one of the few bright spots that have come from the pandemic.

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