Telemedicine and Mental Health

shutterstock_282978377Americans now spend about five hours every day on mobile devices. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube….you name it and we’re on it. But a new study shows there’s another way to spend time online that could benefit our mental health. It’s growing fast and Arizonans are among the national leaders in embracing this new technology.


Newly published research by Harvard Medical School and the RAND Corporation reveals a dramatic growth in the use of telemedicine for the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders in rural areas, but strikingly uneven distribution of services across states.

The results, published in the May issue of Health Affairs, stem from analysis of telemedicine use among Medicare beneficiaries nationwide over 10 years.

The study shows an average 45 percent jump per year in telemedicine visits between 2004 and 2014, among rural patients, with striking variation across states. Four states had no such visits in 2014, while in nine states, there were more than 25 telemedicine visits per 100 patients with serious mental illness.

According to Medpage Today, “Nevada and Wyoming had the largest per-capita number of visits, with 45 visits per 100 beneficiaries in 2014, and Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and North Dakota were among the states with at least 30 visits per 100 beneficiaries.” added:

Authors couldn’t fully account for the differences between states, but did say that states with telemedicine parity laws and states with an A rating from the American Telemedicine Association on their regulatory environment had significantly higher rates of use. Of course, the authors admit, this could also be at least partially a reporting bias, since doctors in states without parity laws might be less inclined to submit a claim for a telemedicine visit, and the research is based on claims data.

Becker’s Hospital Review listed several key points from the study, including:

  • Around 1.5 percent of beneficiaries diagnosed with any mental illness and 3.7 percent of those diagnosed with serious mental illness used telehealth services.
  • The most common primary diagnoses on the telehealth visit claims were major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder as well as schizophrenia.
  • Beneficiaries with any mental illness who did receive a telehealth visit were more likely to be younger than age sixty-five and be eligible for Medicare because of disability.
  • From 2004 to 2014, the number of telehealth visits among rural patients with any mental illness rose by 45.1 percent annually, from 2,365 visits in 2004 to 87,120 visits in 2014.

Health Leaders Media quoted the study’s lead author, Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, as saying that while telemedicine use overall is still low….the idea is catching on. “This is evidence that in certain communities tele-mental health can happen and be a routine part of care, and it spurs the people in other communities to say this is possible and we need to rethink this idea because it is taking off.”

Are people using telemedicine to access mental health services in your community? If so, let us know and tell us how you think it is working and how it might work better. Finding innovative ideas that will drive better health in our state will help us take another step toward our long-term goal of one day making Arizona the Healthiest State in the Nation!


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