Jan. 13, 2021, 1:00 p.m. EST

Telemedicine was mostly used for mental health when COVID-19 first hit

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By Meera Jagannathan

Telehealth use was highest for mental-health services as pandemic social-distancing guidelines accelerated the use of remote health-care services last spring, a new analysis shows — suggesting that “prospects for an expanded role for telehealth may be better for behavioral health care.”

About 48% of people who were being treated for some condition when the pandemic struck said they had used telehealth, according to a study by researchers at RAND , a think tank. Nearly 54% of patients with a behavioral-health condition used telehealth between mid-March and early May, while 43% of people with a chronic physical health condition did the same.

Video use in telehealth visits was more common for behavioral health conditions (30%) than it was for physical health conditions (14%), found the study, which was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Most people opted to see their own doctor rather than a different physician.

Women were less likely than men to use telehealth for behavioral health conditions, as were white people compared to Black people, people 60 and older compared to younger people, and people with less than a high-school education compared to college degree holders. 

“If telehealth use is going to remain high, we need to ensure equity of access, particularly for behavioral health care where education, age, and gender were all associated with levels of use,” lead study author Shira Fischer, a physician researcher at RAND, said in a statement .

Fischer and her colleagues analyzed results from the RAND American Life Panel survey, which included data from 2,052 respondents who were paid for their participation. The study, which included a sample representative of U.S. adults aged 20 and older, was fielded from May 1 to May 6.

Previous studies have also revealed disparities in telehealth access during the pandemic. Researchers who examined medical records from 148,402 patients in the early months of COVID-19, for example, found that older people, non-English speakers and Asian people used telemedicine at lower rates, according to the study published in the journal JAMA Network Open .

Meanwhile, a combination of health concerns, unemployment, substance use, isolation and general anxiety — not to mention preexisting mental-health conditions — could be negatively impacting people’s mental health during the pandemic. 

The government has expanded access to telehealth services during the COVID-19 crisis, and some mental-health professionals say now might be an opportune time to try teletherapy. 

“There’s evidence that shows that telehealth can be as effective as in-person treatment in many instances,” Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told MarketWatch in March.

For those who are seeking mental-health services but don’t know where to begin, experts suggest looking to a local crisis center for guidance on accessing therapy, as well as checking out employee-assistance programs (EAPs) offered through the workplace. 

People who have employer-based health insurance can check the list of providers available through their plan, in addition to databases maintained by the American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association . Online therapy services like Talkspace and BetterHelp are also available.

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