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Telehealth visits for psychiatry may be here to stay

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, persuading patients to see a psychiatrist for mental healthcare using telehealth was “like pulling teeth,” according to the leaders of a recent University of Michigan study. Once the virus hit and lockdowns began, however, 83% of Michigan Medicine patients opted to have their or their child’s first psychiatry appointment via a video chat.

Telehealth with therapist
Telehealth visits for psychiatry have become popular with patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, and may be here to stay. (Source: Adobe Stock)

Fast forward to today, and virtual visits for mental health care have become a popular and possibly permanent option, the study found.

More than half of about 250 adult patients and parents of kids under 18 who were surveyed for the study said they want to continue with virtual mental healthcare even after the pandemic is over. Factors mentioned as positives include the convenience of seeing a provider without leaving home, and removal of barriers such as access to transportation, needing time off from work or getting childcare.

Nearly all the patients in the study group who had a virtual visit by late summer, when the survey was conducted, said it went as well as or better than they expected. The study also suggests that no-show and cancellation rates have declined significantly for telehealth visits compared to in-person appointments.

Jennifer Severe, M.D., one of three psychiatrists who helped launch the university’s telehealth initiative, said health insurance providers soon must decide whether and how they will cover and pay for virtual mental healthcare in the future, and the study findings could help inform them.  

“We went from not getting much traction with telepsychiatry – and encountering a lot of reluctance among providers and patients – to having nearly all our care delivered virtually, and offering help to those who need it,” Severe said. “These data suggest an opportunity to turn the experience of the pandemic into an opportunity to improve access to mental health care and improve the continuity of care. But policy and reimbursement decisions will be important.”

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