Addressing the Rise in Behavioral Health Needs from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Unaddressed behavioral health needs impact a health system’s financial, clinical, and equity strategies. According to Milliman, treating patients with behavioral health diagnoses costs about $875 per member per month more than patients without such diagnoses. In 2017, deaths of despair (i.e. those related to suicide, alcohol, and drugs) reached the highest rate since the CDC began collecting this data in 1999.

The lasting pandemic has only exacerbated this trend, with nearly 50% of U.S. adults currently exhibiting some signs of depression. The greatest burden of symptoms occurs among populations with compounding stressors (e.g., job loss and limited childcare) and the least access to financial and social resources.

With the increase in telehealth utilization across health systems, more patients have access to behavioral health consults through virtual channels. However, current approaches to addressing behavioral health needs are often inadequate and fragmented. Despite the relatively high prevalence of affected patients, significant barriers still restrict access to treatment.

Providers must create a proactive strategy to identify, assess, and manage patients’ behavioral health needs—particularly for at-risk populations and caregivers. A comprehensive behavioral health strategy includes at least three tactics:

  • Integrate behavioral health services into all medical and physical health services. Initial targets often include primary care for ongoing management and the ED for crisis stabilization.
  • Leverage technology (e.g., apps and online communities) to scale in-between visit care. Beyond tele-visits, IT tools can enable ongoing symptom management at scale.
  • Activate community-based partners (e.g., social service organizations) in regional hotspots. Partners can help mitigate symptom escalation among hard-to-reach groups.

Redesigning Chronic Disease Management

Chronic diseases are defined as conditions lasting one year or longer, require ongoing medical attention, and/or limit daily activities. Today, chronic diseases affect millions of Americans and drive over $1 trillion dollars of annual healthcare costs. Beyond direct healthcare expenditures, research indicates the indirect costs of the chronic disease burden from lost economic productivity exceed $3.7 trillion – almost 20% of the US GDP.

While historically challenging, chronic disease management has become even more difficult amid the coronavirus pandemic. Patients are limiting their interactions with the healthcare system and care has shifted to virtual platforms. Providers must implement strategies to proactively engage patients with chronic diseases to manage ongoing care and prevent exacerbation and avoidable cost in the future.

The lasting pandemic creates an opportunity for the development of new care models and innovative solutions that address longstanding challenges that are particularly acute among chronic disease patients, such as medication adherence, care coordination, and inequitable access. Such strategies will set the foundation for long-term transformation that will ultimately drive improved patient outcomes and population health.