Telemedicine visits for mental health continue to increase, although they have declined in all other specialties

The explosive use of virtual care in the early months of the pandemic has seen a dramatic decline in all but one specialty – mental health. In fact, the use of telemedicine among mentally ill people continues to increase, according to a new study report.

For the report, healthcare appointment booking platform Zocdoc, used by millions of patients each month, examined appointments booked on its platform from May 2020 to May 2022. In May 2020, a third of appointments were telemedicine visits, and a year later it dropped to 17%. Mental health aside, only 9% of appointments in the last month were done virtually.

In contrast, when the use of telemedicine for psychiatric appointments was studied, the numbers tell a different story. As of May 2020, 74% of mental health appointments booked on Zocdoc were virtual. It rose to 85% in May 2021 and 87% in May 2022.

Virtual mental health visits will continue to grow, said Richard Fine, Zocdoc’s chief commercial officer. He said while all other specialties have shifted back to in-person care, mental health is shifting even more toward telemedicine.

“The conversational nature of mental health appointments — and the discretion, ease, and efficiency of speaking to a therapist from home without a commute — means that telemedicine will likely remain the patient’s first choice for mental health care,” he said .

Zocdoc surveyed patients about their attitudes toward virtual visits, and respondents indicated that they prefer telemedicine to in-person mental health care because the modality is more convenient and allows them to save more time and money. Not having to commute to an in-person visit often means a patient doesn’t have to pay for transportation or take time off work.

The convenience that telemedicine brings to those seeking mental health care comes at a crucial time. Forty percent of US adults to report Anxiety and Depression Symptoms and Providers to report a 93 percent increase in patients seeking resources for their anxiety. Because telemedicine appointments often allow patients to see a provider faster than if they had in-person care, the urgent need for mental health care is another reason why the specialty is using telemedicine more than the others.

The report also showed that the easing of Covid-19 protocols and the return to in-person settings have not prompted the mentally ill to seek in-person care. Among patients who booked a virtual mental health visit with a new provider, fewer than 5 percent booked an in-person follow-up appointment. For comparison, this percentage ranged from 50 to 60 for patients who booked a telemedicine visit with a new gynecologist, ophthalmologist, or dentist.

Aside from the telemedicine boom in mental health, virtual care has steadily fizzled out alongside every other specialty since the early months of the pandemic, but the modality still accounts for significantly more visits than it did before Covid-19. As of February 2020, less than 1% of Zocdoc’s bookings involved telemedicine, according to Fine.

Patients cited avoidance of Covid-19 and adherence to infection control protocols as the top reasons for seeking telehealth care in the early months of the pandemic. Now that 77% of US adults are vaccinated and most pandemic protocols have been relaxed, providers and patients are viewing the widespread use of telemedicine across all modalities as “a complement to in-person care, not a substitute for it,” Fine said.

Seventy-seven percent of patients surveyed by Zocdoc believed they would use a combination of telemedicine and in-person care in the future, and 83% of providers who survived said the future of healthcare will involve a mix of these modalities of care.

Copyright: Olga Strelnikova, Getty Images

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