By Eric Wicklund, mHealth Intelligence | May 13, 2019

While many studies look to compare virtual visits against in-person care, a new report suggests a combination of telehealth and office visits may be best in helping rural Americans access mental health services.

A study conducted by Relias and Genoa Healthcare, a Washington-based provider of behavioral health services, finds that a telemedicine platform that complements in-person mental health care with virtual visits reduces the initial time to treatment by seven days, an important statistic when taking into account the patient’s need for care following an ER visit or hospitalization. In addition, the hybrid model increased the number of follow-up outpatient visits by one-third, thereby improving access to care.

The study found no significant difference, meanwhile, in medication adherence rates or hospital readmissions between the two forms of care.

“Providing adequate psychiatric care to our rural population is among the top challenges in our behavioral health system because of scarce resources,” Christy Power, vice president of health services at Preferred Family Healthcare in Hannibal, MO, whose patients were studied in the analysis, said in a press release issued by Genoa. “We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of telepsychiatry as an important tool in the rural mental health provider’s toolbox, but the potential is tremendous.”

The study suggests an integrated approach to connected care that not only makes use of telemedicine, but adds emphasis to in-person care. It’s an important point to make at a time when many rural and small providers may be fearing that telehealth might be taking away their business.

The study, recently published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Rural Mental Health, focused on 242 Missouri residents receiving Medicaid-funded mental health service through community health centers. Part of that group received traditional in-person care, while the other part took part in the hybrid telehealth model.

“The group with hybrid telepsychiatry plus in-person visits had improved timeliness of care and increased number of total outpatient encounters compared to the group with in-person visits only, indicating hybrid care may be more effective than in-person visits alone are,” the researchers wrote in an abstract accompanying the study. “The current study suggests that offering telepsychiatry can help close the gap in access to mental health care between rural and urban populations, particularly during the time after an inpatient admission or an emergency department visit.”

“As telepsychiatry service options continue to grow, making this delivery mode available to rural populations may have a positive impact on mental health outcomes in the United States,” the study concluded.

Original Article