Telepsychiatry Poised to Thrive After the Pandemic

Hybrid Care Is the Future

Jennifer Lubell

November 24, 2020

Once the fog lifts on a global pandemic that led to an explosion in telehealth visits in 2020, mental health experts expect virtual and in-person visits to merge to become a standard model of care in clinical psychiatry.

Hybrid care is the future, Peter Yellowlees, MBBS, MD, a professor of psychiatry and chief wellness officer at the University of California, Davis, said in an interview. "I've been working this way for several years – where all of my patients get to see me in person or online, or both."

The model's increasing popularity reflects a major shift toward virtual consults. Telemedicine offers safer, quicker, and less expensive alternatives, Steven Chan, MD, MBA, of Stanford (Calif.) University, said in an interview. "This continuity is essential to helping to reduce emergency room visits, reduce inpatient hospitalizations and readmissions, and improving adherence to treatment," Chan said. State and federal regulators' actions to lift certain licensing and prescribing restrictions and expand coverage made it easier for clinical psychiatrists to offer and get paid for these services.

The catch is that no one knows whether these easements will remain in place once COVID-19 recedes, ending the national public health emergency, Jay H. Shore, MD, MPH, chairperson of the American Psychiatric Association telepsychiatry committee, and professor and director of telemedicine programming at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora's department of psychiatry, said in an interview. "These all temporarily changed during this time period, but we have no idea when they're going to end or if they're going to continue off of COVID. So now, there's a lot of uncertainty."

"Suite of Different Technologies"

New freedoms to deliver telehealth care left some practices scrambling to adopt or refine technology. Once COVID-19 hit, "I can't think of a psychiatrist or provider or institution that didn't have to rapidly virtualize and do at least some video conferencing," Shore said. This immediate shift signaled a key move toward hybrid patient-doctor relations. "It means you hold a relationship with your patients through multiple different mediums, email, portal, telephone, in person. It's not just about in-person versus video, it's about a suite of different technologies."

Shore began practicing telehealth 20 years ago, long before the age of COVID. He's since established rewarding relationships with patients he's never met. "I've done everything from medical management to long-term psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, and I've been successful with different populations."

Many nuances exist around matching the right patient with the right videoconferencing adaptation, Shore continued. However, "in general, the literature supports that you can get equal clinical outcomes with telehealth versus in-person treatment."

"I See Their Garden"

While some may eschew the idea of providing care over a virtual platform, other physicians see it as an insightful window into a person's mental state. "I think some are actually quite surprised by how much good care you can give using video," said Yellowlees. Unlike a phone conversation, video allows you to see a person's home. "The beauty of a video is not just that you can see the person, you can also look around their home, and learn more about them."

In his own visits, he asks patients to take him on a virtual "walk" through their house, provided there are no confidentiality issues.

"I get to meet their pets, the carers, the spouses; I get to see their garden. I get to see what their interests are from looking at the paintings on their walls. I learn more about my patients that way. If you use video to purely see people from the neck up, then that's fine, but I think you can also use it to your advantage, seeing people at home." He also encourages patients to do visits in their cars – as long as the windows are shut, they're in a safe area, and most importantly, they're not driving.

Nina Vasan, MD, MBA, who treats patients at Stanford and in a concierge private practice for executives, agrees that seeing patients in the home offers a more direct view of patients' lives. "These little extra pieces of information are things that we didn't get before COVID, when patients would come by themselves into the office week after week. I do feel like I know some patients much better by being able to see their surroundings and home interactions," Vasan, founder and executive director of Brainstorm: The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation and chair of the APA's committee on innovation, said in an interview.

She uses Zoom for her sessions, and regularly texts with her concierge patients. In both clinics, where most visits have gone virtual, "the no-show rate is near zero. Before COVID, it was around 10%-20%."

Safety is a key advantage of virtual visits, noted Shore. "It's certainly better than some of the risks of seeing people in person."

Lack of Integration Causes Frustration

Some challenges exist around access and adaptation of virtual technology. The pandemic's sudden onslaught left many clinicians scrambling to adjust to a virtual format without any training or tools to support them. "This has caused some stress," Shore said.

Electronic health record systems may or may not integrate video visits, noted Chan. "For instance, I work at a health system where mental health questionnaires, imaging systems, notes, and video visit scheduling are housed in separate systems."

Without a seamless national, integrated system in place, physicians are often left to couple different IT formats together. "There are some systems that work pretty well, and there are some that are really clunky where you're forcing the two together, so that's a challenge," Shore said. Providers may be using one system for their office and another system to provide care. "They may be using different EHRs and different teleconferencing platforms. That adds complexity." Video conferencing platforms aren't as challenging to use as EHRs. However, if some people are self-taught, there's no way of knowing if they're using best practices, he added.

Many health systems do offer video built into EMRs. Companies such as Epic have provided integrations with Vidyo, Amwell, and other platforms, noted Chan.

An integrated platform is useful if done well – but isn't necessarily essential, according to Yellowlees. In his own setup, he signs a laptop into an EMR and uses an iPad to communicate with patients via video on the iPad and all video on the phone.

"The big advantage of telemedicine is you can type your notes in a socially appropriate way while talking to the patient on video. I do that, and it saves me a considerable amount of time. I don't have to spend time after a consultation typing up notes."

Still, others may struggle with bandwidth or connectivity. "Perhaps there's a problem with privacy or the types of patients you're dealing with," Shore said. Older patients in a nursing home, for example, may require a team of people that works onsite. Suddenly, their care has to transition to a virtual system. "You may need to figure how to put the right team together to do straightforward and individual interactions," he said.

Virtual care also suffers from the "digital divide," an issue that predates COVID-19, said Shore. Not all patients have access to bandwidth and the technology to see clinicians. Other lack expertise and comfort with using the technology, or can't afford the equipment necessary to bring them online. The pandemic has highlighted all of these disparities, he emphasized.

Chan offered that the digital divide is part of a larger socioeconomic divide, where barriers to any care – including transportation for in-person care – exist.

Technology and access issues aside, insidious "Zoom fatigue" is affecting everyone right now. "That's clearly real," Shore said. "And it's not just about videoconferencing; it's about being in quarantine. We're all in this virtual lockdown, where people are using the term 'videoconferencing fatigue.' It's a complicated problem."

To assist with telehealth implementation, the APA has issued practice guidance and a toolkit that includes an extensive set of educational materials, including 40 videos on various topics. It's also hosted webinars on telehealth policies and written up standard operating procedures on this topic, Yellowlees said. "The most important thing is APA, like other organizations, is advocating to have the relaxation of regulations during COVID made permanent," he said.

Reimbursement Post Pandemic

As virtual visits rose in 2020, so did billing for such services. According to America's Health Insurance Plans, claims to private insurers exploded by more than 4,000% in 2020. AHIP last July reported that mental health conditions made up one-third or more than 33% of telehealth claims to private insurers during the pandemic. Yellowlees said the health insurers he's dealt with "have been good about paying for telehealth visits during the COVID-declared emergency."

Whether this coverage will continue once the public health emergency ends, is unclear, some contend. "My sense is that there will be a rollback of coverage, but it won't be back to what we had prepandemic," said Ateev Mehrotra, MD, MPH, who studies telemedicine trends, in an interview. Right now, there's still a great deal of uncertainty about reimbursement, "and that's what's giving providers pause," said Mehrotra, of the department of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School and a hospitalist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, both in Boston.

AHIP will continue to support federal and state policies to further promote telehealth access during the public health emergency, spokesman David Allen said in a statement. "Insurance providers have independently shifted their policies to increase access to care and services, ranging from acute care needs and triage services to chronic disease management and behavioral health. We are still awaiting information on what changes will remain in place beyond the public health emergency," he said.

Even before COVID-19, Mr. Allen noted, nearly all large employers (96%) offered access to telehealth services as a covered benefit in 2019. In May, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that many insurers were reducing or lifting cost sharing for telehealth for limited time periods.

Some of the larger payers said they're continuing benefits, although it's not clear how long some benefits will remain in place.

UnitedHealthcare offers no-cost coverage for COVID-19 testing–related telehealth visits, but that benefit is set to expire once the public health emergency presumably ends on Jan. 20, 2021. Through Dec. 31, 2020, the payer said it would offer coverage with no cost sharing for telehealth visits related to COVID-19 treatment and expanded access to telehealth visits not related to COVID-19 through its network. Similarly, Anthem is waiving cost sharing for COVID-19 treatments via telehealth or in-person visits, and for telehealth visits not related to COVID-19 for Medicare members through the end of the year.

Anthem will continue to cover telehealth and encourage members and clinicians to use telehealth for behavioral health, a spokesperson said. Anthem also has a telehealth provider, LiveHealth Online, "another safe and effective way for members to see a doctor to receive health guidance from their home via mobile device or a computer with a webcam," said the spokesperson.

Vasan hopes that insurers will increase coverage for telehealth and at the same rate as in-person visits, especially for mental health. "I have not felt that the quality of the clinic has decreased, and in fact, in some ways it's gotten better, and insurance coverage should reflect this."

Outlook for the Hybrid Model

As long as there's COVID-19, psychiatry practices must remain virtual, at least for now, Shore said. "We will emerge from this pandemic, I suspect in bits and starts." When that happens, practices will need to have a transition plan in place. "Once we get away from COVID, I don't think our mental health will ever be the same again. We'll have much more virtual technology along the lines of a hybrid model, where we'll see patients in person, but we'll use more technology to work with patients, but it will be more of a blend." Practices will also have to address the regulatory, reimbursement, and prescribing conditions the new world offers.

Some practices are already discovering the benefits of relying less on a brick-and-mortar office.

Chan said his colleagues are finding that they no longer have to deal with the expense and upkeep of renting and furnishing office space. "Many are taking their practice virtual-only because the monthly recurring costs are so cheap, and they can see patients in distant, underserved communities." In-person visits are now inconvenient and risky, he continued. They require expensive personal protective equipment and cleaning protocols. "Plus, there's the risk that services must shut down when stay-at-home orders return or when a staff member gets infected."

Physicians prescribing certain controlled substances will likely continue to use office space, once the public health emergency expires and face-to-face visits resume. "In such cases, they can rent office space part-time," Chan added.

Vasan, also of the department of psychiatry at Stanford and chief medical officer of Real, hopes that such a model prevails. "I do miss seeing patients in person and think a hybrid will be a good balance."

Most patients want it, as do the influx of Generation Z physicians coming into the profession, Yellowlees noted. These are young, technologically savvy doctors who grew up in the age of the Internet. "I think the silver lining of COVID is it led telemedicine past the tipping point, where both patients and providers are learning that it's an appropriate way to get care, as long as you're careful, use professional guidelines – and don't drop your standards of care."

Yellowlees and Shore are coauthors of Telepsychiatry and Health Technologies: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals (Washington: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2018), and receive royalties from the book. Shore also reported working with AccessCare and receiving royalties from Springer Press. Chan reported consulting for Orbit Health. Vasan reported no conflicts of interest. Mehrotra has received research funding from several U.S. agencies, including the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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