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angle-left Use of telemedicine for behavioral health increasing year over year

Use of telemedicine for behavioral health increasing year over year

For Immediate Release:  2020-02-04

Contact:  Jim Redmond, (585) 238-4579, jim.redmond@excellus.com

Behavioral health services delivered via telemedicine now account for nearly one-third of all telemedicine visits, according to a review of 2019 claims data from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. In 2018, behavioral health services accounted for less than 25 percent of all telemedicine visits. The health plan serves more than 1.5 million members across 39 counties of upstate New York.

Telemedicine allows a health care provider to treat a patient by telephone or a secure, two-way video connection that is similar to Skype or FaceTime. Private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid pay for health care services delivered via telemedicine.

Behavioral health services include treatment for both mental health conditions and substance use disorders. The top mental health conditions for which health plan members seek telemedicine treatment are generalized anxiety disorders, major depressive disorders, dysthymic disorders, posttraumatic stress disorders and adjustment disorders. The use of telemedicine for behavioral health services also includes treatment of substance use disorders including opioid use disorder, alcohol use disorder, and tobacco use disorder. The top specialists seen via telemedicine for behavioral health treatment include social workers, psychologists, counselors and nurse practitioners.

“Patients are realizing that they can see a specific behavioral health provider on an ongoing basis from the privacy of their home, where they feel comfortable and can call at their convenience,” said Marya Vande-Doyle, director of workplace wellness and telemedicine for Excellus BCBS. “Another factor in many parts of upstate New York may be the shortage of behavioral health professionals, especially those who specialize in treating children and adolescents. Telemedicine can easily connect these patients with accessible behavioral health providers from whom they can receive ongoing care.”

Extrapolating the health plan’s member claims data to reflect the entire statewide population, Vande-Doyle estimates that New Yorkers logged more than 80,000 telemedicine visits for behavioral health services in 2019.

A survey of upstate New York adults conducted in late 2019 by One Research and commissioned by Excellus BCBS found that among 2,000 respondents:

  • 17 percent are receiving counseling for a mental health condition,
  • 28 percent of adults are taking medication for a mental health condition,
  • 35 percent say they will consider using telemedicine for treatment of a mental health condition,
  • 58 percent of participants who said they take a medication or are receiving counseling for a mental health condition say they will consider using telemedicine to connect with a health care provider.

Using telemedicine to access behavioral health services is most popular among patients in younger age brackets. A review of health plan claims data found that approximately 70 percent of users are 40 years old or younger. About one-quarter of users are 20 years old or younger.

Bar graph showing the percent of telemedicine visits made by health plan members for behavioral health conditions, by age group, in 2019. The graph shows that a combined 70 percent of users were age 40 or younger. About 25 percent of users were ages 0 to 20.

“Many of my clients are young working professionals and are not intimidated by the use of technology for our sessions,” said Tara Ammersen of Syracuse, N.Y., a licensed clinical social worker who uses telemedicine to meet with patients. “Also, my clients with children appreciate that they don’t have to arrange for child care while away from home for a session.”

“Telemedicine for behavioral health services isn’t for everyone and every situation,” said Vande-Doyle. “The significant year-over-year increase in its use for behavioral health services clearly demonstrates its growing acceptance as a tool that enhances access to care.”

Check with your health insurer to learn which telemedicine providers are recommended by your health plan.

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Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, an independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, is a nonprofit health plan with 1.5 million upstate New York members. The company's mission is to help people live healthier and more secure lives through access to high-quality, affordable health care. Its products and services include cost-saving prescription drug discounts, wellness tracking tools and access to telemedicine. With more than 3,500 employees, the company is committed to attracting and retaining a diverse workforce to foster innovation and better serve its members. It also encourages employees to engage in their communities by providing paid volunteer time off as one of many benefits. To learn more, visit ExcellusBCBS.com.