Most physicians, and actually most people in general, would agree with the statement that telehealth resources generally lead to patient benefits. However, if you start to ask more specific questions about those benefits, and specifically regarding mental health, the answers might get a little more vague. But there are certainly many real benefits to these patients. For any mental health provider who may be considering expanding into a telehealth role, it is great to fully understand those benefits from a patient’s perspective.
The most common setting in which telemental health services thrive is where there is a gap between need and access. In 2015, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration reported that roughly 1 in 5 individuals in rural counties had some sort of mental illness in the previous year. This figure is somewhat similar to the rates found in urban areas, but there is a huge discrepancy between these populations in terms of accessing treatment.
The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) has found that over 80% of mental health workers practice exclusively in urban areas and more than 65% of rural Americans seek mental health care from their primary care physician. In order to get the highest quality of care, these individuals should instead be seen by mental health professionals who have in-depth knowledge of the conditions, and can work with the patient on a long-term treatment plan that will have a much higher likelihood for success.
This is where telehealth technologies can come into play. By offering remote, digital access to mental health services, telehealth can help alleviate some of the burden on primary care physicians and address the shortage of mental health professionals in rural areas. This is the most obvious benefit to patients in many instances – by simply providing access, a large barrier has been overcome.
A less obvious benefit that still affects a large portion of mental health patients is simply the stigma of seeking treatment. In rural areas, everyone knows everyone, so even if all HIPAA guidelines are adhered to, it may be obvious to others when mental health services are sought. In some cases, the anxiety and fear of being stigmatized is a strong deterrent to those who could be helped, and these feelings are commonly exacerbated by the mental health condition itself. With telemedicine, appointments can easily be kept from the privacy of one’s own home or from a trip to the primary care physician’s office. This may be a much more desirable option for those who fear social reprisal stemming from mental health treatment.
Cultural competence in mental health treatment is often an overlooked aspect of the care model. However, with migration trends having a global perspective, there are often sharp increases in the diversity of many patient populations. The ability for a provider to care for a patient often depends upon their ability to understand the patient’s perspective, values, beliefs, and approaches to health and well-being. As populations become multilingual, multiracial and multicultural, the ability to relate to a patient’s culture becomes a key aspect in reducing health disparities.
This is especially true in rural areas whose history reflects a very homogenous and static population. As cultural diversity becomes realized in a certain population, the ability for providers to develop cultural competence is critical in delivering quality mental health care. With increased access to capable providers, there is a corresponding increase in cultural representation. This is a key aspect in understanding health-related behavior and providing quality care.
Increased access, privacy and the ability to reach culturally similar physicians are several of the benefits that patients experience through telehealth. Choosing to be a provider in this venue can greatly increase the quality of patient care in many regions that need it desperately.