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The Role of Telehealth to Support Mental Health during COVID-19

March 17, 2022

Telehealth accounted for more than a third of all outpatient mental health and substance use disorder visits during the six months ending August 2021, according to new analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and Epic Research.

The report, released this week, reviews electronic health records data from more than 150 organizations from March 2019 through August 2021. While some care returned to in-person settings during 2021, patients continued to rely on telehealth for outpatient mental health and substance use disorder services, the report notes.

“The telehealth boom for mental health and substance use services far exceeds the increase recorded over the same period for other outpatient services,” the report notes.

Here are five takeaways from the report:

  1. A sustained rise:  Telehealth for outpatient mental health and substance use services increased from about 0 percent before the pandemic to a peak of 40 percent of visits during 2020. Telehealth accounted for about 36 percent of outpatients visits in the six months ending August 2021
  2. Rural growth:  Patients in rural areas more often used telehealth for outpatient mental health and substance use services (55%) than patients in urban areas (35%) from March 2021–August 2021
  3. Insights by age:  During the six months ending August 2021, adults between 18 and 64 accounted for about 62 percent all mental health or substance use outpatient visits via telehealth
  4. Drop-off in other areas:  Telehealth usage among all other outpatient care has decreased from about 11 percent during March 2020–August 2020 to about 5 percent during March 2021–August 2021
  5. Growing behavioral health needs:  Across all outpatient visits (in-person and telehealth), the share of patients with a mental health or substance use diagnosis increased from 4 percent during March–August 2019 to 8 percent two years later

“This is a product of several factors, including the tremendous increase in need for mental health services as a result of the pandemic, social distancing and ensuing economic turmoil, as well as a return to in-person visits for other outpatient care,” the report notes.

HAP continues to advocate for initiatives that improve access to telehealth services, including the extension of COVID-19 flexibilities that have made it easier for patients to access this critical care.

Learn more about HAP’s behavioral health priorities, including policies to expand access to care so that Pennsylvanians can obtain the services that best fit their needs.

The KFF/Epic Research analysis is available online.




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