Virtual mental health care has been a standout success. Here is how practitioners in other specialties can build on that success.
The case for teletherapy has been building for years. Studies looking at the use of telehealth for depression, substance use disorder and other mental illnesses show that it can be just as effective as in-person care. Virtual visits are an especially good fit when someone is uncomfortable being seen in a mental health clinic1 or needs flexible scheduling.
During the pandemic, teletherapy found its moment. “Once people had their first experience, they found the care to be quite good. And they liked not having to travel to an appointment and sit in a waiting room,” says Taft Parsons III, MD, Chief Psychiatric Officer for CVS Health®.
In the year before the pandemic, CVS Health provided 20,000 virtual mental health visits. That number grew to 10 million visits in 2021. By August of that year — when most people went back to their doctors’ offices for other kinds of care — about 36 percent of the outpatient visits for mental health and substance use disorder were completed virtually, compared to 5 percent for other medical visits.2
Mental health care is at the forefront of exploring how virtual care works best, according to Parsons, including where in-person visits and smartphone apps fit — and how to solve for new barriers to integrating that care.
Finding mental health apps that fit
The proliferation of apps and services is one of those barriers. As many as 20,000 mental health smartphone apps are thought to exist, and the field is expected to grow 20 percent annually in the coming years.3 This abundance is a good thing, as the tools have been shown to improve symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress.4 But patients may need help to sort out which apps are effective and which are not.
“It’s exciting to have these apps as part of the digital toolbox,” says Cara McNulty, DPA, President of Behavioral Health and Mental Well-being for CVS Health, who notes that an app’s potential can be profound, as long as it is coordinated. “But we vet our partners very, very carefully to make sure they provide sound clinical approaches and have good outcomes that can align to an individual’s overall care plan and experience.”
Matching patients with clinically proven apps is a tall task, but one that can yield life-changing benefits. One app partner of CVS Health, for instance, provides support to young adults who are thinking of harming themselves. Another partner helps people cope with eating disorders. These tools can be used on their own or in conjunction with provider visits, McNulty says.