In many industries, technological advances come in fits and starts. For medicine, the attempts to modernize have been cumbersome and asynchronous at best. The global pandemic is forcing the industry to confront issues with inaccessibility. Like many organizations, we have had to make many adjustments to handle this challenge.
In 1993 The American Telemedicine Association was created to increase access to medical care for rural communities. Thirty years later, old fights to retain insurance coverage continue, and new fights to provide prescriptions electronically have arisen.
Our medical system has become a dystopian body, without a nervous system, with various body parts unable to communicate critical information to the brain. Conversely, the brain is unable to direct each body part to do what's required to function correctly as a whole. Through the years, short-sighted solutions have unfortunately also resulted in additional barriers to getting care, and to accessing data critical for making timely (and comprehensive) clinical decisions on behalf of the patient. HIPAA, a law that was designed to protect the patient, although well-intentioned, has led to negative secondary consequences. For example, barriers to access patient information may lead an emergency healthcare worker to give medication that a patient is allergic to or may start a medication that a patient has already tried unsuccessfully. Software advances across other industries reveal the shortfall of technological innovations within the healthcare industry.
"Burdensome regulations have slowed progress, and providers have been reticent to adopt even the most basic telepsychiatry prior to the pandemic."
Sometimes disruption of an industry comes through random events or other "acts of God" that force an industry to make changes en masse. The global spread of COVID-19 has pushed mental health practitioners to bridge the gap quickly through telehealth. Some of the prior barriers to using telehealth included unfamiliarity with utilizing telehealth platforms and fear of the legal risks that could come with using such platforms in case of a patient developing suicidal or homicidal ideation. Within weeks of state and nationwide shutdowns, telehealth suddenly became the only clear answer to providing behavioral health care. COVID-19 has forced mental health providers to adopt a quick timeline for its use.
At Sensible Care, our telehealth platform was launched in 2019, primarily for patients who resided 30 minutes or further away from our clinic. Patients who were impacted by long commutes required a solution that would solve for delayed appointments due to traffic or time restrictions. While we noted that patients initially preferred to see new providers in person, virtual care became the norm rather quickly, and for some, became the preferred method of care. Our team quickly adjusted to utilizing telehealth services in order to ensure consistent treatment, which prepared us well in advance for COVID-19.
Benefits of Telehealth
Let’s look at the benefits of telehealth as it provides many advances in care that are not possible utilizing physical appointments only.
Location: Many patients reside in areas with limited or no access to psychiatrists or therapists, who typically cluster in large urban areas, resulting in few or no mental health care options. With telehealth platforms, patients in rural areas suddenly have access to mental health providers anywhere in the state where they live. Most patients may start by choosing providers who are physically located closer to their residence. However, we suspect that this preference may be transitory, as patients realize that they have more choices if they pick from the larger pool of providers throughout their entire state of residence. By celebrating telehealth, Sensible Care can deliver comprehensive behavioral services throughout California and eventually nationwide.
Time: Consider the amount of time spent by patients traveling to and from their home or work to see their providers; it's significant. When appointments require less time away from home or work, patients can reinvest that time in productivity, time with their families, and doing things that make them happy. For providers, telehealth creates an opportunity for them to provide care at night or on weekends, which are times that have typically not been utilized, due to the time constraints required to travel to and from their clinic or hospital. New availability means even more access to care. Allowing providers to work from the comfort of their own home also helps to reduce burnout from commuting. Providers now have more time to spend on self-care, and this enhances their ability to serve their patients in the long run. This helps combat the worsening discrepancy between limited providers and high demand for mental health services.
Money: If we're also utilizing the famous equation, "time = money," telehealth certainly saves money. We earn more time for other things in our lives, and we spend less money on gas for commuting. Less gas consumed results in less pollution, which is significant environmental harm, which also costs money to remedy.
Comfort: Some providers and patients may have fears for their safety when traveling to and from clinics for various reasons. Providing healthcare from wherever is most convenient for both parties acknowledges this concern, and allows both parties to meet when and where they're comfortable.
Some see the use of this telehealth technology in these times as a temporary solution. Yet, there are so many arguments that this is just the beginning of an epic and substantial shift in telehealth services, even after this pandemic subsides.
At Sensible Care, incorporating telehealth into our clinic early on has resulted in a smoother transition to its use during the COVID-19 outbreak. Utilizing technology's benefits to create efficiencies in care has been at the crux of providing excellent and continually improving care for our patients. We plan to continue to be at the tip of the spear in pushing for this change so that people nationwide across all spectrums will have access to quality mental health services when they are ready.