Digital tools help increase access to behavioral health at a time of growing need

Health plans are providing an array of new solutions to employers that help address the broad spectrum and rising volume of behavioral health challenges spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. These efforts include expanding solutions to care for employees and their families, including virtual appointments, apps and digital tools.

For example, 61% of people diagnosed with a mood disorder such as bipolar disorder have used behavioral virtual care for treatment. Of those, 83% are satisfied using virtual care and 79% say it has made it easier for them to access care.1

Beyond a provider shortage,2 other barriers to behavioral care include busy schedules cost, and stigma associated with mental health conditions. Virtual care may be able to break down those barriers by offering real-time audio or video sessions with a provider from home, work or wherever else the employee can connect. Virtual care helps to streamline access to quality care for people in need, improve flexibility for both members and providers, and yield outcomes comparable to in-person visits.3

“Improving access to behavioral health care is critical at all levels of severity,” said Dr. Martin H. Rosenzweig, Chief Medical Officer, Optum Behavioral. “Members with faster access to behavioral health care have higher levels of engagement and better outcomes. We also want to engage with members before they enter the system in crisis.”

3 key takeaways about virtual care and digital tools

  1. Virtual care may help streamline access to quality care for people in need, lower the total cost of care and improve flexibility for both members and providers.
  2. Almost 70% of organizations plan to emphasize mental health offerings, especially virtual care and digital tools, over the next 2 years.
  3. UnitedHealthcare’s virtual behavioral coaching program has delivered high patient engagement and positive outcomes, including a 50% decrease in depression score.

“One of the keys is to make sure members get the right care at the right time,” says Stacie Grassmuck, Director of Behavioral Health Product and Innovation at UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual. “Self-help tools and apps can help them do that. If self-help isn’t working, then we go to the next step.”

Another solution available to qualifying employer groups is virtual behavioral coaching, which provides evidence-based support for those managing stress, anxiety or depression. Employees work at their own pace and have access to:

  • 8 structured sessions based on cognitive behavioral therapy tools (CBT) and techniques
  • 24/7 access to program content
  • Unlimited access to dedicated 1-on-1 coaching support to focus on individual goals through phone, secure message or email
  • Coaches trained in evidence-based motivational interviewing to create a personalized experience and drive adherence to programs
  • Ongoing access to resiliency tools

The program has delivered high patient engagement and positive outcomes, including a 50% decrease in depression score, 42% decrease in anxiety score, 32% decrease in social anxiety score4 and a retention rate that is 15 times higher than other mental health apps.5

“This coaching program is built on (CBT) which previously was only available via live therapy sessions with a therapist. It offers employees an option in between a self-care app and outpatient therapy,” Grassmuck says. “It was important to base the program on CBT principles, which are known to produce positive outcomes for patients.”

When virtual care may help support behavioral health conditions

When employees aren’t sure what support they need, employee assistance programs (EAPs) and advocates can help guide employees to appropriate, timely care across a continuum, whether it’s self-care apps, virtual coaching or virtual care. In fact, a recent survey shows that 68% of organizations plan to emphasize mental health offerings, especially virtual care and digital tools, over the next 2 years.6

Most EAPs offer a wide range of services, often referring employees to other professionals who can offer more or extended care in particular areas. For example, UnitedHealthcare’s EAP allows plan members to call coordinators 24/7 for a no-additional-cost, confidential assessment of their situation and a referral to licensed professionals and services.

EAP coordinators help members manage a variety of behavioral health conditions, improve relationships at home or work, handle stress, work through emotional conditions and get legal or financial assistance.

When an employee calls an advocate, they can provide whole-person, proactive guidance across a broad number of health care needs, including emotional health, clinical and complex care support, and financial and benefits. 

“Navigating the system is complicated and talking with someone who understands the complexities makes a big difference,” Rosenzweig says. “Virtual behavioral health care represents an opportunity to bring the care delivery model into our patients’ homes, and we’re equipped to help guide employees to our solutions with this option.”

Leveraging technology to help remove access barriers and improve relationships and rapport with patients has the potential to help benefit everyone including employers when they have healthier, productive employees.

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