Occasionally, even great ideas – like telepsych – take a while to gain popularity. Though the practice has been around for six decades, its usage has grown recently as telepsychiatry technology has evolved to provide better access and quality. The last few years have seen significant increase in the rates at which healthcare providers and patients are using telepsychiatry services with positive results.
While telepsychiatry isn’t quite a new frontier, it is blazing new trails in how mental health treatment is offered and accepted. Here, Regroup Medical Director Dr. Hossam Mahmoud answers five questions that reveal what the telepsychiatry landscape looks like today and where those blazing trails are leading.
1. The use of telepsychiatry has grown in recent years. What are the main factors driving adoption?
There are two main factors driving adoption. The first is the mismatch between the demand for care and the supply. The uneven distribution of psychiatrists and the increase in demand because of the opioid crisis have exaggerated this mismatch, which has required an expansion of telepsychiatry services and another innovation in healthcare.
The second is that more and more psychiatrists and patients are comfortable with the technology. Interfacing through a video screen is much more socialized now, especially in the U.S. Telepsychiatry technology, as well as high-speed internet, is also more widely available today than it was even a few years ago. Many rural areas now have high-speed internet, and this enhancement has improved connectivity within the healthcare sector, allowing for the implementation of telepsychiatry services,
2. How is telepsychiatry currently impacting the mental health landscape?
It is streamlining access and efficiency. Telepsychiatry decreases the inequities in healthcare between rural and urban areas as well as for hard-to-reach populations, including correctional institutions and Native American reservations. It’s making treatment more convenient for patients, particularly for people who have to take time off from work or school and travel long distances to see a psychiatrist. There’s also an increase in efficiency for health centers. By eliminating travel time, a telepsychiatrist can see more patients each day and serve patients across multiple locations more easily, rather than having to travel from one location to another. As a result, patients who otherwise would remain on a waitlist are being seen and their needs are being addressed.
3. In your opinion, how widely accepted is telepsychiatry among healthcare providers today?
I think acceptance has been increasing pretty quickly. A major perception shift has happened over the past three years. That’s evidenced by the number of telepsychiatry programs that have opened in that time, as well as growing interest in telepsychiatry among healthcare organizations. It’s been one of the main topics of discussion at virtually every conference I’ve been to in the last two or three years – there’s clearly an interest and a demand for these services.
4. How have regulations around telepsychiatry changed in recent years?
With the exception of a few states, we’ve witnessed a significant evolution of regulations over the past three to five years. For example, up until last year in Illinois, the state required a healthcare professional to be physically sitting with the patient at all times during a telepsychiatry session. This was costly to the facility, and at times limited privacy for the patient. These types of restrictions are declining, and there’s also been an expansion in financial reimbursement. Most states now require Medicaid and other payers to cover telepsychiatry treatment.
5. How do you think telepsychiatry will continue to evolve over the next five to 10 years?
I believe it will continue to expand. More and more mental health professionals will be interested in practicing telepsychiatry. More and more patients will be open to receiving care via videoconferencing. Reimbursement will also likely continue to expand, making telepsychiatry more financially accessible for providers and patients. As a result, I believe telepsychiatry will go beyond community mental health and hard-to-reach populations to reach all populations because of the combination of demand, convenience and feasibility.