- The increase in the use of telehealth services during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic expanded the number of people receiving care for several common mental health disorders, Rand Corporation researchers said in a new study published in JAMA Health Forum.
- Mental health services provided for some conditions were 10% to 20% higher by December 2020 than at the start of the year, according to the research, which tracked claims for more than 5 million adults with private health insurance.
- In-person services for depression, anxiety and bipolar, adjustment and post-traumatic stress disorders declined by more than 50% after the public health emergency was declared, the nonprofit research organization said. By contrast, utilization rates of telehealth services increased across all diagnostic categories by a factor of 16 to 20 following the national declaration.
Prior studies have documented a rise in mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic. Decreased social interactions and physical exercise, threats to employment and economic security, and higher mortality rates created psychological distress for many people.
Numerous mental health care providers switched to providing virtual services during the pandemic, and both public and private insurers expanded coverage for that treatment. While the sharp increase in use of telehealth mental health services is known, the study is the first to show that the expansion of telehealth more than made up for the decline in in-person treatment, the Rand researchers said.
“Our findings highlight a remarkable transition in the U.S. mental health system from in-person to virtual care,” Rand economist Christopher Whaley, the study’s senior author, said in a statement.
Among the study’s findings, use of telehealth was highest for anxiety disorders and lowest for bipolar disorder, and more women than men accounted for the greater use of services for anxiety disorders. People in rural areas were found to be less likely to use telehealth, while patients over age 46 had lower rates of services than younger adults.
The research, which received support from the National Institutes on Aging and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, examined claims data from benefits manager Castlight Health for employer-sponsored insurance plans for about 200 organizations in all 50 states.
Telehealth use remains high compared to pre-pandemic levels. Lawmakers are debating how much telehealth flexibility should be allowed once the COVID-19 public health emergency ends.