A July 30, 2019 Altarum report funded by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund shares that mental health care is out of reach for many Michigan residents. While 1.76 million Michiganders live with a mental illness, more than 666,000 of them (38 percent) are unable to access care. The numbers for people with substance-use disorders (SUD) drop to 20 percent. While ability to pay is one major hurdle to receiving care, a shortage of providers is another. Fifteen Michigan counties have no psychiatrists; 10 have neither psychologists nor psychiatrists; and 15 have no SUD treatment facilities.
Since 2013, Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services has been trying to address this lack of care by offering telehealth services. Last year alone, they conducted 25,000 therapy sessions over the phone. A new partnership with Spectrum Health and its recently rebranded Spectrum Health Now app will extend that service to more people in need throughout the entire state.
“Behavioral health needs to appear in all kinds of places. In physician offices, in our homes and families, at school, and in businesses,” says Mark Eastburg, Ph.D, President and CEO of Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. “Part of our strategy in trying to solve behavioral health access is to make ourselves available in as many settings as possible with the least amount of barriers.”
Spectrum has been offering telehealth visits for primary care since 2015, recently reaching its 100,000th visit. The updated app integrates mental health care into the service to help adults struggling with issues like anxiety, depression, sadness, grief, and stress. Video chats are scheduled within 48 hours of contact. Eastburg notes that if someone with a mental health emergency calls, they will be directed to immediate care.
“Teletherapy is a really fantastic tool,” he says. “There are geographic areas in Michigan that are really underserved. With this sort of technology, those barriers really get broken down. A county with no access has the same access through telehealth care as the person in Grand Rapids.”
While the app extends services to people throughout Michigan who do not have physical access, it still is only available to those who have the means or insurance to pay. While most managed Medicaid plans cover the service, straight Medicaid does not.
In compliance with HIPAA, the video chats are encrypted from the point the call originates until the point it hits the client’s computer or mobile device. The app has no recording ability and therapists, working in a room alone with the door closed, will ask clients if they are in a place where others can hear them. If clients are not in a private location, they will be asked to reschedule. The service may also increase access for those who feel reluctant or embarrassed to be seen in a mental health setting.
“We see teletherapy as a growing interest as a service,” Eastburg concludes. “We’re not sure how big it will get 10 years from now, or what percentage (of visits) will be face-to-face versus [in] an online environment. We know some people will prefer that face-to-face and some prefer the online telehealth. Again, as part of access, we want to make both available to eliminate barriers that might get in the way of someone getting help.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, interim Innovation News Editor
Photos courtesy Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services