A new study from the Bipartisan Policy Center observes a connection between telehealth services and reduced burdens on emergency departments across the country. When combined with some of the observations made by Telehealth.org in Risks & Benefits of Telehealth, this data suggests that telehealth therapy can also work to reduce some of the current burdens on mental health services in high traffic areas such as emergency departments.
How Low Acuity Cases Dominate the ER
For years, one of the more significant healthcare dilemmas has been the overuse of hospital emergency rooms. In May of 2020, 40 minutes was the estimated average wait time for emergency department services during COVID. Without the pandemic making people hesitant to visit the emergency room in 2019, the average wait time for emergency department services was over an hour and a half.
The hospital ED fills in for patients who do not have a primary care physician, effectively delaying services for patients experiencing actual emergencies. The Bipartisan Policy Center survey also suggests that a significant reason for the reported wait time reduction may be that people now use telehealth services more for problems they would have typically taken to the emergency department. These “low acuity” concerns include urinary tract and upper respiratory infections, minor cuts, rashes, strains and sprains.
How Telehealth Services Relieve Emergency Room Burden
With fewer low acuity complaints needing attention, more resources become available for actual emergencies. With telehealth services currently more obtainable thanks to the loosening of restrictions and the approval of more services for Medicare reimbursement, more patients have diverted away from the emergency department. This development protects individuals from unnecessary exposure while still ensuring they can access the services they need. Further, it helps already taxed doctors and nurses in the emergency room by reducing the number of patients they need to see. A smaller number of patients may also reduce the need for difficult triage decisions.
How Telehealth Services Similarly Benefit Mental Health Services
As Senior Director of Digital Health at the University of Rochester, Michael Hasselberg described behavioral health as a supply and demand issue. Can virtual care help? He has seen mental health supply and demand problems up close. When he first came to Rochester, he found the students’ need for therapy far outstripping the amount of care available. The waiting list, at times, ran months long. He quickly reduced the burden by introducing a telehealth solution and gave many more students the needed care.
He sees the same problems facing mental health services at large: too much demand with too little supply in many areas and plenty of services available for an already well-served population in others. By employing telehealth therapy, clients can more easily access services no matter their physical location.
As with physical health, some mental health needs are low acuity. With telehealth therapy, a remote session or two may be all that is needed to address low acuity cases. If telehealth indicates the need for more services, in-person care or a telehealth therapist can connect with the client. Regardless, providing that initial telehealth assessment will lead to a more effective and efficient deployment of clinicians and resources.
Advocating for Telehealth Therapy to Increase Mental Health Service Effectiveness
If you see, as we do, how many telehealth services are able to address burdens in mental health care and increase effectiveness and efficiency, please reach out to your elected officials and argue for making the current temporary telehealth expansion permanent. Include an illustrative case example with the client’s identifying information removed. Call attention to how it has already made a difference in your work. We are at a crucial time. The opportunity to ensure the broadening of telehealth services and their reimbursement may soon evaporate. Please act now.