Telehealth’s promising foothold in mental health

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May 12, 2022

Since COVID-19 caused a spike in virtual care usage, innovators have been capitalizing on its growth in popularity. Digital health ventures raised over $29 billion dollars by the end of 2021, by far their biggest year to date. 

Virtual mental health services were just one area that saw a massive boom in use as a result of the pandemic, and that momentum is lasting. Despite a Q1 2022 dip in digital health funding as compared to Q4 2021, virtual mental health care remains the top funded clinical focus area, a position it has held since 2018. Not only that, but this year’s Q1 funding for digital mental health care is almost double the next highest-funded clinical focus areas, oncology and cardiology; mental health is already at $1B for the year, with oncology and cardiology both at $0.6B. 

Towards the end of 2020, I wrote a post expressing my thoughts on teletherapy’s ability to thrive beyond COVID-19, and so far its success has remained consistent. According to Kaiser, while telehealth use for most outpatient care has returned to almost pre-pandemic levels, virtual mental health care remains close to its pandemic peak. Why have consumers continued to seek out mental health care virtually? 

A key part of understanding consumer behavior is Jobs Theory. While conventional marketing focuses on market demographics or product attributes, Jobs Theory goes beyond superficial categories to expose the functional, social, and emotional dimensions that explain why customers make the choices they do. People don’t simply buy products or services; they pull them into their lives to make progress. We call this progress the “job” they are trying to get done, and understanding this opens a world of innovation possibilities.

Three aspects about mental health care make it well suited to virtual care delivery? This is because virtual channels can do a better job of serving an individual’s desired progress in seeking care. 

1. First, people seeking mental health care are looking for an effective solution to their struggles. Teletherapy is found to be just as, if not more, effective as in-person therapy. Positive outcomes are not unique to teletherapy; other clinical areas are seeing comparable results between virtual and in-person care. However, the quality of telehealth for physical care has only been tested in limited spaces, making it difficult to get the bigger picture on how effective telehealth is for multiple clinical use cases. 

2. Second, people want access to care when they need it, and don’t want to wait to address their problem. A draw of virtual care is its promise to improve access to care. Teletherapy is no exception; it has the ability to expand therapy access, particularly to underserved areas. At the same time, teletherapy appears better at expanding follow-up care access, because the vast majority of follow-up appointments can also be virtual.

While virtual care improves access for many, less consistent access to broadband internet, and a lack of licensed providers, are still barriers to making care more ubiquitously available.

3. Third, people don’t want to feel shame when seeking care. Mental health care is far more stigmatized than physical health care. Telehealth brings care into the comfort of a patient’s home. In the case of teletherapy, this capability also removes the stigma of seeking care, making it a more comfortable experience for the individual. Virtual channels allow new patients to seek mental health care without worrying about how they are perceived, which is less of a problem for physical health care.

From a patient and provider standpoint, there are still some bumps in the telehealth road that need to be smoothed over. Mental health care, though, is well situated to succeed on a virtual platform. It provides equivalent and possibly better quality outcomes, while also providing patients an opportunity to seek care in a private, comforting space. In all likelihood, the momentum behind virtual mental health care will persist. So far, it is successful at helping patients achieve key aspects of the progress they desire.

Jessica is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on business model innovation in healthcare, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care delivery.