Home Health Care Telehealth visits for mental health continue to rise despite dropping in every...

Telehealth visits for mental health continue to rise despite dropping in every other specialty

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The explosive use of virtual care that occurred during the early months of the pandemic has dropped drastically across all specialties but one — mental health. In fact, telehealth utilization among mental health patients is continuing to climb, according to a new report.

For the report, healthcare appointment booking platform Zocdoc, which is used by millions of patients each month, examined the appointments booked on its platform from May 2020 to May 2022. In May 2020, one-third of appointments were telehealth visits, and a year later, it dropped to 17%. Excluding mental health, just 9% of last month’s appointments were conducted virtually.

By contrast, when telehealth use for mental health appointments was examined, the numbers tell a different story. In May 2020, 74% of mental health appointments booked on Zocdoc were virtual. It rose to 85% in May 2021 and 87% in May 2022. 

Virtual mental health visits will continue to grow, said Richard Fine, Zocdoc’s chief commercial officer. He said that while every other specialty has shifted back to in-person care, mental health is pivoting even more toward telehealth.

“The conversational nature of mental health appointments — and the discretion, ease and efficiency of talking to a therapist from home without a commute — means that telehealth is likely to remain patients’ first choice for mental health care,” he said.

Zocdoc surveyed patients on their attitudes toward virtual visits, and respondents said they preferred telehealth to in-person mental health care because the modality is more convenient and allowed them to save more of their time and money. Not having to commute to an in-person visit often means that a patient will not have to pay for transportation or take time off work.

The convenience that telehealth provides for those seeking mental health care comes at a crucial time. Forty percent of U.S. adults are reporting anxiety and depression symptoms, and providers are reporting a 93% rise in patients seeking resources for anxiety. Since telehealth appointments often allow patients to see a provider more quickly than if they had sought in-person care, the urgent need for mental health care is another reason why the specialty utilizes telehealth more than the rest.

The report also showed that the relaxation of Covid-19 protocols and return to in-person settings has not influenced mental health patients to seek in-person care. Among patients who booked a virtual mental health visit with a new provider, less than 5 percent booked a follow-up in-person appointment. To compare, this percentage was between 50 and 60 for patients who booked a telehealth visit with a new OB-GYN, eye doctor or dentist. 

Mental health’s telehealth boom aside, virtual care among all other specialties has consistently fizzled out since the first few months of the pandemic, but the modality still accounts for significantly more visits than it did before Covid-19. In February 2020, less than 1% of Zocdoc’s bookings were for telehealth, according to Fine. 

Patients cited avoiding Covid-19 and following infection control protocols as their main reasons for seeking telehealth care during the first few months of the pandemic. Now that 77% of U.S. adults are vaccinated and most pandemic protocols have been relaxed, providers and patients now view telehealth’s broad use across all modalities as a “supplement to in-person care, not a substitute for it,” said Fine.

Seventy-seven percent of patients surveyed by Zocdoc believed they will use a combination of telehealth and in-person care going forward, and 83% of providers survived said the future of healthcare will involve a mix of these care modalities.

Photo credit: Olga Strelnikova, Getty Images

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