Telemedicine is expanding as mental health cases increase among residents of Mass.

Almost overnight, the norm that people in Massachusetts once knew for attending school, going to work, meeting friends and family, was reversed. The pandemic has brought an end to statewide closures, social distancing and mask warrants, and daily life – including school and extracurricular activities -. Reality was now only an online phenomenon.

These sudden changes, although implemented cautiously at first, caused massive mental strain among teens and adults across the state. Rising rates of suicide and peaks in mental illness both in the country and in the state – especially for cases related to depression and anxiety – have forced experts and policymakers to examine closely available resources for those suffering from the changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

But just as interactions between school, work, and family moved online, so did processing. Telehealth services, virtually unused before the pandemic, have become the main mechanism for patient awareness.

“This is a serious problem. It really is a nationwide crisis,” said Tony Piro, director of operations for behavioral health at Emerson Hospital in Concord. “And a lot of states, our state in In particular, are responding by putting more money and effort into building ambulatory care facilities that really don’t exist so that we can keep people out of the hospital. “

According to a published trends report, the Commonwealth has seen an almost 20% increase in outpatient mental health services during the pandemic months, while the number of substance abuse cases has remained relatively stable.

“A lot of people have not been able to seek treatment because he is not available. And some of the numbers that I believe are artificially depressed because of it, ”Piro said. “In other words, it doesn’t appear that the number of people seeking help for drug addiction is higher, but it may not accurately reflect the need for drug treatment.”

The majority of recorded mental health-related cases have been attributed to anxiety and depression brought on by a lack of social interaction and other factors brought on by the pandemic.

According to Dr. Maurizio Fava, chief psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, “It is completely understandable that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to cause significant stress and psychological distress for a large portion of the population. . “

“We’ve seen a real increase in the number of people with more formal psychiatric illnesses – depression, bipolar illness, anxiety disorders, things like that. A lot of autistic children are with autism spectrum disorders, whose services were limited during the pandemic, ”added Piro d’Emerson.

Hospitals have been forced to turn to virtual care.

“There has been an increase in the number of people seeking treatment. And a lot of them have turned to – in the area I really focused on – telehealth as an alternative way to get the treatment they need, ”said Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, associate professor of policy. of health and medicine at Harvard Medical School. .

But, like many other businesses across the state, hospitals were unprepared for the unprecedented virtual change.

“There are a lot of medical and psychiatric practitioners who use telehealth, but not a lot,” Piro said. “So a lot of us weren’t prepared. And we kind of had to scramble to come together and bring us into the age of telehealth. “

Policymakers across the state have helped cushion the blow of the brutal shift to the virtual.

Lawmakers led by House Speaker Ronald Mariano D-Quincy and Senate Healthcare Funding Committee Chair Cindy Friedman D-Arlington worked alongside the Baker administration in saying that the Insurers would cover all “medically necessary telehealth services” while reimbursing providers with the same rate as in-person care.

“As majority leader, President Mariano participated in a multi-year effort in the Legislature to provide coverage for telehealth services. During this time, in-person treatment has remained the widely preferred and most popular method of accessing health services, ”said a spokesperson. “The pandemic, and the public health restrictions put in place in response, changed that dynamic and provided the impetus needed to address long-standing issues that had previously held back consensus. “

Friedman echoed the need to expand telehealth to make health care more accessible to the most vulnerable in the community.

“I have been a long-time supporter of telehealth – it increases access to care and is an invaluable tool for the effective delivery of health care,” Friedman said. “Fortunately, under the leadership of Senate Speaker Spilka and in collaboration with the House, we took the opportunity of the last session to pass a bill to ensure that access to telehealth remains a part of medical care. routine in the Commonwealth long after this pandemic has ended. ”

Friedman underscored the bill’s goal to equalize health care at a time when socio-economic factors could play an important role in access to care. She underlined the flexibility of the law which provides telemedicine services even to those who do not have access to a computer or to on-site care.

“Equalizing telehealth and in-person payment rates was key to ensuring better access to telehealth services, providing safe patient care options during the pandemic, and providing a financial lifeline for hospitals, physicians and physicians. community health centers as they struggled with a dramatic decline. in-person patient visits, ”Friedman said.

In an article, Dr. Lee H. Schwamm, director of the Center for Telehealth at Massachusetts General Hospital, highlighted the importance of telehealth services during and after the pandemic.

“It will be important for healthcare systems to reap the rewards of this digital innovation to redesign the delivery of inpatient and outpatient care today and into the future, as we move from a clinical push to a developmental phase. recovery. “

As the state struggles to get back to normal after the pandemic, integrating telehealth services continues to be a priority for hospitals and health care providers.

Despite the fact that hospitals are now returning patients to their waiting rooms, many Massachusetts residents prefer virtual doctor visits from the comfort of their own homes. Telemedicine now complements traditional methods, Piro says, as doctors now have another way of seeing patients.

Mehrotra said telehealth will not only continue to play an important role in patient services, but will even develop as a leading healthcare medium.

“I think telehealth will play a very important role in treating mental illness in the future. And it might even be the dominant form of treatment.

Haley Chi-Sing writes for the Boston University Statehouse Program Gazette.

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