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Americans want mental healthcare via telehealth, but data security worries remain

New technologies also benefit providers as they look to retain service line revenues by offering remote care.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Amid rising mental health struggles for many during the COVID-19 pandemic, a survey from leading healthcare cybersecurity firm CynergisTek reveals that nearly half of Americans, 46%, would embrace telehealth widely for mental health and therapy sessions, but still worry about their behavioral health data being exposed by hackers.

The benefits of telehealth have been highlighted by a public health crisis that has forced people indoors and isolated them from their peers due to social distancing measures. While this has kept many Americans safe from the coronavirus, it has also exacerbated mental health concerns. Telehealth opens up new, flexible options for patients, but also benefits providers as they look to retain service line revenues by offering remote care.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

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Attitudes towards telehealth, especially in mental healthcare, have shifted dramatically as Americans increasingly seek out virtual visits with behavioral health professionals. When considering telehealth use for nonurgent care, Americans would most likely consider using it for mental health sessions (46%), followed by chronic care check-ups (29%). and annual physical and children's wellness exams (27%).

When drilling down into other key groups, it was discovered that millennials, GenXers and females are more receptive than other Americans to using telehealth solutions for a mental health session (54%, 50% and 52% respectively). Baby boomers and men were less enthusiastic about using teletherapy: Only 34% of boomers and 40% of men reported they'd consider using telehealth for mental healthcare counseling.

Only 22% would consider delaying mental health appointments vs. the nearly 40% who would delay annual exams and more than 40% who would consider delaying eye exams, dentists appointments and cosmetic procedures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Telehealth tools have been around for years, but lack of reimbursement stymied progress and limited incentive to use the technology for critically resource-challenged areas like mental health. With the coronavirus spurring regulators to authorize reimbursements for virtual visits, mental health professionals are scrambling to keep up with the demand.

Studies have found that switching to mental telehealth doesn't come at the cost of efficacy. Expanding use of mental health services through telehealth can be a boon for rural, underserved communities and can close healthcare inequity gaps among people in lower socio-economic communities who may not have access to transportation or can't take time off work to see a mental health professional.

WHAT ELSE YOU SHOULD KNOW

The survey also found that, although the vast majority of Americans are receptive to using telehealth for mental healthcare needs, patients could be easily scared off should their sensitive behavioral health data be breached. At 44%, respondents indicated they are most concerned about their mental health data being exposed in a data breach, rather than any other type of data.

Although millennials and GenXers are open to using telehealth solutions for mental health sessions, they are also extremely concerned with their data being exposed in a breach (50% and 48%). Surprisingly, baby boomers were found to be more ambivalent about their privacy and mental health data being breached, with only 32% expressing concerns.

Also, 34% of Americans are worried about their sexual health data being exposed in a potential breach, a number that increases significantly among Gen Z and millennials (42 and 40%, respectively).

As virtual care surges in use, hackers haven't been on the sidelines waiting for the pandemic subside. A recent report found the number of attacks on telehealth vendors has increased by 117%. The figure highlights how cyber adversaries are looking to new modes of entry to exploit emerging vulnerabilities with the expanded use of technology.

THE LARGER TREND

A recent survey from digital behavioral health company Tridiuum found that 81% of behavioral health providers began using telehealth for the first time in the last six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Even more important, 70% of respondents reported they plan to continue offering telehealth services post-pandemic, and that they intend to leverage video visits for at least 50% of their patients moving forward.

The findings are significant because behavioral health providers have historically cited concerns that virtual therapy could not be as effective as in-person visits – despite literature suggesting those fears are unwarranted. As a result, such providers lagged even further behind primary care and other physical health providers in adoption of telehealth prior to the pandemic.

The survey confirmed that behavioral healthcare delivered via video-conferencing is comparable or even better on multiple quality indicators.
 

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com