Despite Rising Rates of Mental Illness, Telehealth Tools Remain Underutilized

Despite the fact that the COVID-19 emergency has led to higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression, telehealth tools and other resources to address those mental health symptoms remain underutilized. 

That’s according to a recent study commissioned by Universal Health Services, Inc. (NYSE: UHS), one of largest hospital management companies in the nation. The King of Prussia, Pennsylvania-based company has a roughly equal presence and revenue split between its behavioral health and acute care segments.

“Our data indicate that few Americans are utilizing the online tools that offer coping strategies or are seeking help from professionals to manage COVID-related stressors,” Matt Peterson, executive vice president and president of the behavioral health division at UHS, said in a press release announcing the findings.


Through its subsidiaries, UHS operates 330 behavioral health facilities, 26 acute care hospitals and 41 outpatient facilities and ambulatory care access points across 37 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the United Kingdom. It also has an insurance offering, a physician network and various related service offerings.

The company commissioned the data and insight platform Dynata to survey Americans’ views on mental health amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings are based on the responses of 1,097 demographically diverse adults from across the country, captured between May 14 and May 20, 2020.

The majority of those surveyed — 62% — reported increased stress, anxiety or depression as a result of the coronavirus. Of that cohort, 55% reported that the increases were interfering with their lives moderately, severely or overwhelmingly. Additionally, nearly 25% reported feeling COVID-related stress, anxiety or depression most or all of the time.


Still, only a fraction of those people sought help. Of the respondents who reported increased levels of stress, anxiety or depression, only 15% reported using online tools or seeking out a mental health clinician for assistance.

That’s somewhat surprising considering the fact that telehealth accessibility has spiked across all sectors of health care amid the pandemic. They goal is to get patients the care they need without introducing unnecessary COVID-19 infection risks.

Behavioral health providers are no exception.

Before the coronavirus hit, 93% of behavioral health providers surveyed by the National Council for Behavioral Health said they provided less than 20% of care in a virtual setting. Amid the COVID-19 emergency, that figure spiked: 60% of respondents said they offer up to 80% of care virtually.

UHS is among those that’s supplemented traditional offerings with telehealth in recent months as a result of the coronavirus.

“What telehealth did was enable our facilities and our clinicians to access [the] patient population in another way … and direct them to the sort of care that they needed — or in some cases to provide an outpatient therapy session [virtually],” UHS CFO Steve Filton said recently on the company’s Q2 2020 earnings call.

However, telehealth hasn’t replaced UHS’s core business of inpatient care, according to Filton. Instead, it has created more options for patients regarding “how to enter the system, how to be assessed [and] how to receive outpatient treatment in a broader way than they had four or five or six months ago,” he said.

Meanwhile, mental health care startups that have long embraced remote care options have leaned even further into telehealth amid the pandemic.

For example, Quartet Health — a mental health services aggregator that matches people with in-person and remote care options — recently partnered with SilverCloud Health to offer computerized mental health care services to users. The self-guided programs can be accessed at any time, anywhere using tools such as a smartphone or tablet.

At the same time, usage of remote mental health care apps such as Calm and Headspace has gone up. However, those increases are in line with a gradual trend of rising engagement rather than the pandemic alone, according to Apptopia, a provider of app store data.

Still, UHS’s Peterson is hopefully tele-mental health services will continue to catch on. One finding from UHS’s recently commissioned study indicate that it could happen: Most of the survey respondents who used telehealth reported having positive experiences.

“It is promising that the majority of Americans surveyed who have used telehealth had a positive experience,” Peterson said in the press release. “Barriers to care – particularly for mental health – still exist and must be addressed. Research studies in this area will give us a better understanding of how to better support the citizens of our country to be resilient during this current pandemic as well as future challenges.”

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