The Importance of Engaging Behavioral Health Patients Digitally

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By Michelle Hoy, executive vice president at Mind Springs Health, and Mainul Mondal, founder and CEO of Ellipsis Health 

COVID-19 has forced most mental health care interactions to become virtual – emphasizing the essential role of digital health tools in behavioral health treatment. A survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association found that 63.6% of responding members did not use virtual sessions at all before COVID-19; however, after the onset of the pandemic, that figure dropped dramatically to just 1.9%. 

Even before COVID-19, digital health tools have demonstrated their potential to address issues in care access. Traditional, face-to-face treatment meant counting on patients to walk into an office on in what could be one of their worst days, which is not how we should aim to practice healthcare anymore. Rather than trying to figure out how to get patients into a healthcare facility, the question becomes, “How do we meet people where they are?” 

To enhance patient care and engagement, Mind Springs Health & West Springs Hospital and Ellipsis Health joined forces to deploy a remote clinical decision support tool that leverages patient speech to identify and manage depression and anxiety symptoms at scale. Within just a few minutes of an app recording a patient answering questions, providers receive a data point on how that person is doing –without requiring them to come to an office or fill out a form. Patients feel at ease answering the prompts without judgment or expectations from anyone and are encouraged to share their struggles, which is a natural and culturally familiar way for patients to experience immediate therapeutic relief.  These between session data points support the measurement-based care model utilized by Mind Springs Health.  

Benefits to Engaging Behavioral Health Patients Digitally

Digital health solutions aid in:

  • Identifying Patients in Need: AI-powered apps reach patients where they are and collect timely information to alert providers to significant changes in a patient’s emotional state so that clinicians can be of assistance before a person’s condition deteriorates or there is a loss of life. This right care, time, place approach allows providers to conduct outreach, engage with patients and often prevent someone from heading towards a psychiatric emergency. By avoiding a visit to an emergency room or psychiatric hospital, individuals are no longer utilizing higher levels of care that take them away from loved ones and prevent them from working.  
  • Addressing Social Determinants of Health (SDOH): Social determinants of health (SDOH) are a huge priority and challenge in behavioral health. When patients can be reached virtually, it removes common barriers to receiving care such as finding transportation, getting time off of work or arranging childcare. Even if it is just a quick appointment during a 15-minute work break, virtual care levels the playing field. While digital health tools will not solve SDOH entirely, they are a critical part of the answer.
  • Supporting Time-Strapped Providers: Estimates project a shortage of between 14,280 and 31,091 psychiatrists in the U.S. by 2024. Digital health tools decrease no-show rates, by providing timely reminders and an engagement tool that brings patients closer to their providers, and every eliminated no-show means another person is seen by a provider – adding to the pot of wellness for everyone. Digital health applications also reduce time, energy and administrative burden for providers, enabling them to focus their limited bandwidth on patients. Digital health tools provide a population mental health overview of providers’ panels, allowing them to focus their attention on those that need high level services, rather than check-ins with their patients.
  • Making Data-Driven Care Possible: Technology solutions enhance measurement-based care, which leads to improved outcomes for patients. Measurement-based care, while widely accepted in physical medicine (blood pressure, blood sugar, weights), is a relatively new concept for community mental health centers (CMHCs). By monitoring patient scores generated by apps, treatment teams gain quick visibility into which patients are positively progressing and those who are not. For patients who are not getting better, it becomes asking, “What are we missing?” Using a data-driven approach to mental health provides objective feedback to the provider to make better informed decisions, leading to improved outcomes.

Overcoming Hurdles to Digital Mental Health Care

To truly engage all patients digitally, some challenges must be recognized and remedied. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 14.5 million people in the U.S. still lack broadband access, and 17% of Americans in rural areas lack access. Given the remote location of many patients, getting broadband that supports telehealth can be problematic. To ensure everyone can receive mental health treatment, we must continue to shrink the digital divide on a national scale. 

Still, even with access to cell phones and internet service, many underserved patients have never had a cell phone and if they do, they may not have an adequate data plan to perform a virtual mental health session. For patients to receive virtual care, people must have the equipment to support telehealth. It is also critical to educate someone who is homeless or severely mentally ill on how to use technology. While it may seem simple, creating a guide for how to use a smartphone has enabled patients to keep in contact with their care teams and continue therapy. 

Digital health must also consider the needs of non-English speakers. It is crucial to hire staff that is fluent in other languages to deliver care to this population. For many immigrant patients, virtual visits feel much safer than coming into an office, and technology can make it easier for these people to seek assistance from others who speak their language and understand their culture. 

Treating people with respect and dignity remains central to patient treatment and must remain top-of-mind for care teams in order to achieve technology solution benefits for both providers and patients. By strategically incorporating tools to engage with patients digitally, the behavioral health industry can reach more people and make a greater social impact. With more and more people experiencing mental health issues, it is increasingly important to connect with patients and prioritize emotional wellbeing for all. The pandemic has revealed how digital health applications are an integral tool for achieving that goal. 

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