New study examines trends in outpatient mental health services use before and during COVID-19

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A retrospective analysis compared outpatient mental health services use before and during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and found the role of telehealth is expanding, a trend that will likely continue.

The research, published in the journal, Health Affairs, and conducted by researchers at Oregon Health & Science University, used a nongovernmental claims clearinghouse to analyze data from March to December 2016 to 2018 and compared it with data from March to December 2020. To conduct the research, Jane Zhu, MD, and her team assessed 101.7 million outpatient mental health visits.

In-person mental health visits were reduced by half in the early months of the pandemic, according to the study, with a rebound of mental health service delivery attributed to an increase in telehealth sessions. Researchers found there were variations of how telehealth use increased across groups. Individuals with schizophrenia made up a lower proportion of telehealth sessions compared to in-person visits (1.7 percent versus 2.7 percent), whereas those with anxiety and fear-related disorders accounted for a higher proportion of telehealth visits, at 27.5 percent versus 25.5 percent, according to the study.

While telehealth is suited to address growing mental health needs among patients, the study’s authors cautioned that “increased reliance on telehealth could exacerbate existing healthcare disparities or worsen care outcomes for other populations, particularly if access to broadband internet is limited in some regions or unavailable to lower-income or clinically vulnerable populations.”