VR Could be Behavioral Health’s Next ‘Game Changer’ – With Payer Support

No one could have predicted 2020 would be the year tele-behavioral health care would finally take off. But thanks to the coronavirus — and assists from insurers — virtual care’s prevalence has exploded, yielding positive results for patients and providers. 

In the years to come, the industry’s next big tech revolution could be virtual reality (VR) — or, at least, some payers think so.

“There are some use cases that show that virtual reality can help us with diagnosis and treatment of behavioral health, especially in exposure therapy,” said Sarah Ahmad, senior vice president of product innovation at Magellan Health (NASDAQ: MGLN) and head of Magellan Health Studio.

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Magellan Health Studio is a relatively new venture for the managed care company. Magellan launched the project earlier this year to test new care delivery models and products in hopes of better addressing consumers’ behavioral and physical needs. 

During a recent webinar hosted by the national law firm Foley & Lardner LLP, Ahmad suggested VR is one product on which she’s especially bullish. 

“Virtual reality allows you to [face fears] in a way that’s much cheaper, much safer and in a controlled environment,” she said. “When I think about that type of treatment for fears and anxiety … that to me, in five years, [seems like it] will be something commonplace.”

Today, VR utilization remains somewhat rare within the behavioral health industry, but entrepreneurs in the space want to change that.

Two such trailblazers include BehaVR and Foretell Reality, both of which are charting a course for wider utilization of VR in the behavioral health space. They believe the technology can help improve outcomes, reduce costs and make behavioral health care more accessible.

“We see digital, generally, but VR, specifically, as a way to use powerful technology, to improve access to care, to lower the cost of that care and to also unburden health providers who are already strained and overwhelmed,” Peter Buecker, Chief Medical Officer at BehaVR, told Behavioral Health Business.

BehaVR develops VR experiences for behavioral health patients. CEO Aaron Gani founded the company in 2016, after spending more than 12 years at Humana (NYSE: HUM), where he held various tech and innovation roles, including chief technology officer. 

During his time there, Gani took notice of behavioral health’s impact on overall costs and outcomes, as well as the industry’s supply-demand mismatch. So when cost-effective, consumer-grade virtual reality technology finally hit the market, he saw an opportunity. 

“With my payer hat on, I realized that this is going to be kind of a game-changer,” Gani told BHB, noting that VR can help supplement the thin behavioral workforce, while also solving a slew of other problems.

BehaVR accesses patients through providers, who can deploy the company’s VR in clinical and home-based settings. In both cases, the VR experience is connected to a cloud platform, allowing clinicians to oversee and guide patient progress.

Clinicians have access to a portal and dashboard, and clients have access to a companion app. Most of the experience, though, happens in the VR headset. 

“We now have the ability to make it very turnkey,” Gani said. “Your clinician could enroll you, and we can drop-ship a headset to your home. It’s completely configured. You just take it out of the box, turn it on and it just works. You download an app for your smartphone, and you control it from there, and it’s still all connected to the cloud and to your clinical sponsor.” 

BehaVR currently has four different experiences available to users: a chronic pain program, a chronic stress program, a perinatal program and a new program designed to augment addiction recovery. The company worked with partners such as Johns Hopkins and Hoag Hospital to co-develop some of those experiences.

Currently, more than 300 clinics — including several Acadia Healthcare (Nasdaq: ACHC) sites — deploy BehaVR’s programs.

That includes Bradford Health Services, an Alabama-based SUD provider that started working BehaVR about a year and a half ago, according to Adam Downs, former chief clinical officer of Bradford Health who recently left to start his own company.  

The VR experiences have helped patients immediately manage cravings, fear and anxiety, in addition to teaching them about meditation and addiction.

Plus, despite its cost, the tech has all but paid for itself, according to Downs. Specifically, the technology has helped Bradford Health retain and engage more patients. 

“One of the reasons the margins are so slim in behavioral health is because of dropout,” Downs said. “If you can look at VR as playing a role in keeping that patient engaged and keeping him there, then that’s a massive return on investment. And that’s what we saw.”

On top of improving retention, VR can help providers improve treatment itself. For example, Foretell Reality often sees more genuine responses from patients when using VR, according to Dror Goldberg, General Manager of Foretell Reality. Plus, each patients’ responses are methodically tracked. 

“We can record and measure outcomes, and users can reflect back and look at them,” Goldberg told BHB. “Virtual reality has a lot of interesting features that people seem more comfortable with, instead of standing in front of the camera thinking about how they look.”

Foretell Reality is a subsidiary company of The Glimpse Group, a VR and augmented reality platform company with several software and services subsidiaries. Behavioral health is only one of the VR applications that Foretell offers. 

While the company has a library of VR environments, it works with clients to develop customized therapies to meet the needs of their patients. Notable clients include Yale Children’s Hospital and XRHealth, a VR company that uses Foretell Reality for support groups and therapy.

While Foretell Reality has found VR to be especially useful in treating patients with phobias and in improving group sessions, the possibilities in the behavioral space “are fairly endless,” according to Jonathan Collins, strategic advisor for the company.

“It’s not to say any type of therapy is going to be better in VR; that’s not the case,” Collins told BHB. “But I do think almost any type of existing behavioral therapy can be explored in VR, and there is the potential to do things in those environments that you just can’t do in the real world.”

Because of that and the technology’s decreasing cost, there is promise for  increased adoption of VR in the behavioral health space. However, for the industry to be able to leverage the technology’s full potential, payers will have to get on board, embracing VR’s capability to improve outcomes and reduce costs. 

“What we need is reimbursement,” Gani said. “We’re going to get that because we’re driving value.”

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