The pandemic has worsened the nation’s overall behavioral health, underscoring industry-wide workforce shortages and access issues — as well as the dire need to fix them.
“The pandemic has been a shock to the system in all sorts of ways,” David Rabinowitz, an Atlanta area senior manager for Deloitte Consulting, said. “We’re just really recognizing the tremendous burden that the country faces around the topics of behavioral and mental health and wellbeing.”
Rabinowitz made those comments during a June 10 mental health virtual briefing hosted by Modern Healthcare. There, he and other panelists touched on the state of the nation’s behavioral health and the responsibility C-suite executives have in improving it.
Overall, it comes down to investing in innovative models and delivery methods, as well as committing to diversity, they agreed.
The major issues up for discussion during the event were the behavioral health workforce shortage and supply-demand gap, which the pandemic has only exasperated.
According to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, more than 50% of behavioral health organizations have seen a rise in demand for services since the onset of the pandemic. However, almost 40% of Americans live in areas that lack an adequate number of providers to meet community needs, nationwide data from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) suggests.
“The workforce is exhausted, the workforce is tired and we don’t have enough people trained to meet that new demand,” Carladenise Edwards, an executive vice president and chief strategy officer for the Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System, said during the discussion.
Edwards, along with other panelists, pointed to telehealth as a means of extending services to give more people better access to treatment.
Amid the pandemic, state and federal governments have relaxed telehealth rules and regulations to make it easier for providers to take advantage of them. The flexibilities have some people hoping for permanent rule changes — a possible solution for closing the workforce shortage gap going forward, particularly improving access in remote areas.
“I will say that [telehealth] actually has been such a benefit,” Edwards said. “And I use the word ‘blessing,’ that we were able to advance technology at the rate and speed we did, so that people could continue to get their mental health needs addressed.”
Edwards hopes more health care executives will lean into newer, alternative models of care like telehealth going forward to fix nationwide access issues, while also taking into account whole person care and integrated models.
“What we need is more extensions of care and community that wrap people around with support for both their physical health needs and their mental health needs,” she said. “We’re going to have to be really creative, and those group dynamics will enable us to have more people served with fewer people serving them.”
Diversity is also important in moving the needle on behavioral health access issues, panelists said, noting that C-suites need to do more on that front.
Particularly within minority and low-income communities, many people perceive a lack of cultural sensitivity from behavioral health providers, the vast majority of whom are white. As a result, those community members often forgo treatment; but a more diverse workforce could help.
“It isn’t just bringing more people in, it’s actually the diversity of the workforce that we have to bring up and enable,” said Eva Borden, the president of behavioral health for Evernorth, which is a division of insurer Cigna (NYSE: CI). “We have to think about it differently. So even when it comes to access, building a network isn’t enough if you’re not actively adding in people who can address the spectrum of needs.”
Jennifer Bateman — an Atlanta-based senior advisor of trauma-informed practice for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, who was also a panelist on the webinar — expanded on that.
Bateman holds hope that young Americans will overcome long-held behavioral health stigmas in order to address experiences like trauma. Plus, she believes resources like telehealth are well-suited for youth who can easily adapt to new technologies.
“It’s also going to be the issue of our young people to carry forward,” she said during the webinar. “Because of this demand and innovation, [they] are going to be the ones that are real game changers [as far as] stigma and in creating new and innovative opportunities, because telehealth is fantastic. ”
Rabinowitz added that the industry already has the resources at its disposal with capital and technology to make sure more people receive adequate access to services. At the end of the day, for more C-suite executives to put their money where their mouth is, they have to actively reduce barriers to access, he said.
“[W]e’re … at the precipice,” Rabinowitz said. “I think we’re seeing a lot of excitement, a lot of innovation. … But now’s the time to decide if we really want to leap here and actually move into making an impact that’s going to be sustained.”