The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a significant increase in telehealth adoption to address various health concerns, including mental health issues like depression and anxiety. The impact of telehealth services on patient engagement and outcomes in the field of behavioral health was explored in a new study, which was featured in the Medical Care supplement of the Lippincott portfolio of Wolters Kluwer.
Before the pandemic, the CDC’s 2019 National Health Interview Survey revealed that 4.7% of US adults aged 18 and above experienced consistent feelings of depression. This number surged in 2020, with 30.9% of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders as the pandemic took hold. In response, healthcare providers turned to telehealth services to continue offering care while adhering to safety protocols.
This study aimed to assess the implications of telehealth adoption on various aspects of patient care, such as the quality, utilization, and experience of healthcare services for those dealing with depression. Researchers carried out a retrospective cohort study using electronic health record (EHR) data from three integrated healthcare systems, focusing on three distinct time periods: pre-pandemic (January 2019 to March 2020), peak-pandemic (April 2020 to June 2020), and post-pandemic recovery (July 2020 to June 2021).
The team adjusted for covariates across the timeframes using inverse probability of treatment weighting. They examined the initial virtual follow-up behavioral health consultations after a patient received a major depression diagnosis. By comparing the three time periods, researchers aimed to identify any changes in antidepressant medication orders and the completion rates of symptom screenings. The study analyzed nearly 29,000 initial telehealth follow-up appointments in the behavioral health sector.
Results indicated that during the peak-pandemic period, antidepressant medication orders decreased in two out of the three healthcare systems studied. However, by the time the post-pandemic recovery period began, the numbers returned to what they were before the pandemic. Importantly, the researchers found no significant changes in patient satisfaction rates related to antidepressant orders across the three periods.
Moreover, the study revealed that symptom screening completion rates rose in all three health systems during the peak-pandemic period, and this upward trend persisted throughout the post-pandemic recovery period. These findings suggest that the adoption of telehealth services did not negatively affect behavioral healthcare. Instead, the data supports the notion that virtual care can be advantageous for patients with depression, highlighting the potential of telebehavioral health.
However, it is important to note the limitations of the study. The research focused on three integrated healthcare systems, which may not be representative of all healthcare providers. Additionally, the study’s retrospective design could limit the ability to establish causal relationships between telehealth usage and patient outcomes. Further research is necessary to explore the long-term effects of telehealth on behavioral healthcare and its applicability across diverse healthcare settings.
The rapid adoption of virtual behavioral healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled the potential benefits and effectiveness of telehealth for patients and healthcare providers alike. As the healthcare landscape continues to evolve, telehealth is expected to play an increasingly important role in addressing mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, and enhancing patient care. Future studies should address the limitations of the current research to provide a more comprehensive understanding of telehealth’s impact on behavioral health outcomes.