Telehealth: Improving access to behavioral health care for Idahoans (sponsored)

Sponsored by Optum Idaho
3:41 PM, Nov 10, 2021

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most behavioral health providers in Idaho did not readily adopt telehealth as an option for treating Idahoans.

Developed years ago, to bring health care to residents in remote areas, telehealth today offers real-time audio and video-enabled sessions with behavioral health and medical providers in urban, rural, and suburban settings. The telephonic or virtual visits can take place at home, work, or any other private location with phone and internet connectivity. For behavioral healthcare, telehealth helps increase access. It breaks down traditional barriers to treatment: lack of behavioral health care providers, consumers’ busy schedules, and persistent stigma surrounding psychological disorders.

Research shows that telehealth can deliver the same outcomes as in-person visits for many behavioral health conditions and meet the same standards of care set by the National Committee for Quality Assurance.

Because of Idaho’s geography, with 35 rural counties and nine urban, Idahoans often do not have access to behavioral healthcare providers because of where they live and the lack of behavioral health providers across the state.

The federal government, through the Department of Health and Human Services, designates Health Professional Shortage Areas for communities that lack providers of behavioral health. As of 2021, 100% of Idaho has a behavioral health provider shortage.

However, across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, as clients and behavioral healthcare providers sheltered in place and practiced social distancing, the stress and isolation exacerbated emotional disorders, and demand for telephonic and virtual care visits soared. In response, Optum Idaho, the managed care contractor for the Idaho Behavioral Health Plan through Medicaid, permitted the use of popular applications such as Apple FaceTime, Facebook Messenger video chat, Zoom, Google Hangouts video, or Skype. These applications could support its Medicaid members in addition to the approved technology typically required to conduct a virtual session. Optum Idaho also allowed the use of telephonic visits to address the needs of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aided by the ubiquity of smartphones, tablets, and laptops, as well as people’s growing comfort level with technology, the use of telehealth for behavioral healthcare greatly expanded during the pandemic and continues to remain a popular care delivery mode for Idahoans today.

According to Optum Idaho claims data, prior to the pandemic there were on average 230 unique utilizers of remote/telehealth services per month, which in April 2020 leaped to 16,460, or a 7,000% increase. Optum Idaho providers have continued to average 15,000 unique telehealth utilizers a month through June 2021.

At Pathways of Idaho, a behavioral healthcare practice, telehealth became nearly the only way – and the only safe way – for the 18 therapists to keep their clients in care. The therapists provided outpatient services at four offices — Boise, Payette, Nampa, and Caldwell – that included individual therapy, family therapy, medication management, and a range of other supports.

To the surprise of providers at Pathways, they found that providing therapy in the comforts of clients’ homes brought unexpected breakthroughs. One client, scarred by horrific events in her life as a refugee, was able to confront and release several traumatic experiences from her past — something she had not been able to do in her traditional office visits. The key? Feeling secure in the safety of her home. “Because she was more comfortable there, it brought out things that she hadn’t remembered before,” explains Susan Martinelli, Pathways clinical director.

The increase in telehealth usage during the pandemic did not only occur in large urban areas of Idaho.

Therapist Cassie Peck, a licensed clinical social worker who is part of Optum Idaho’s network, practices in Sandpoint, a town in Idaho’s mountainous Panhandle region. Her 20 or so family clients reside in the surrounding rural areas and most are Medicaid participants.

The families are often physically and socially isolated. “I work with families who have very limited support. They may not have family in the area. Or they have family that they are estranged from. Or they are families who do not have close friends. Other than talking to me, they might not really have anyone to talk to,” Peck says.

As Peck returns to seeing clients in the office, she wants to use telehealth in the event a client is sick or there is bad weather. “We live up in the mountains. We often have snow closures. Some clients live 50 miles from Sandpoint.” She also envisions using it for her families who move out of the area but who stay in the state.

With the option of telehealth, Idahoans will have great access to behavioral health care, and care can continue uninterrupted.

To read the complete case study about Optum Idaho’s commitment to expanding access to mental health care across Idaho through telehealth and other innovations to reduce barriers and add convenience, click here.

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