Sociodemographic Factors Influence Telemental Healthcare Adoption Rates

by | Feb 6, 2024 | Telehealth News

A study conducted by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons shed light on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on psychological distress and outpatient mental healthcare among U.S. adults. The research, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, utilized data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a nationally representative survey of over 85,000 people.

Between 2018 and 2021, the study observed a rise in serious psychological distress among adults from 3.5 percent to 4.2 percent. This increase outlines the impact of the pandemic on mental health, with individuals experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and depression. The study incorporated insurance claims, mental health care provider surveys, and electronic health records to assess the mental health outlook during the pandemic. Through in-depth analysis, the researchers were able to capture the changes in outpatient mental healthcare utilization, providing valuable insights into the evolving needs of the population.

There was an overall increase in outpatient mental healthcare utilization from 11.2 percent to 12.4 percent. This uptick in mental health care seeking behavior suggests a heightened awareness and recognition of the importance of mental wellbeing during times of crisis. The study uncovered disparities in access and utilization across different demographic groups. While young adults aged 18 to 44 years exhibited increased outpatient mental health care utilization, this pattern wasn’t observed among middle-aged and older adults. Similarly, employment status appeared to play a role, with more employed adults reporting outpatient mental health treatment compared to the unemployed. These findings outline the need for targeted interventions to ensure equitable access to mental health services for all segments of the population.

The study also highlighted the increasing reliance on telemental health care, with 33 percent of mental health outpatients receiving at least one video visit in 2021. Telehealth became an important tool for delivering mental health care amidst the challenges posed by the pandemic, offering a safe and convenient alternative to traditional in-person visits. The utilization of telemental health care varied across sociodemographic groups. Younger adults, women, college graduates, those with higher incomes, the seriously distressed, lower-income individuals, the unemployed, and rural patients were more likely to engage in video-based mental healthcare. These findings outline the importance of addressing disparities in access to telehealth services to ensure that vulnerable populations have equal opportunities to benefit from virtual mental health care.

Despite the promising increase in telehealth utilization, barriers to access persist, particularly for older individuals and those with lower incomes and less education. Mark Olfson, one of the study’s authors, emphasized the importance of addressing these disparities to ensure equitable access to mental healthcare. He outlined the need for affordable and user-friendly telemental health services to extend their reach to underserved populations. The study’s findings suggest that efforts to promote telehealth adoption should be accompanied by targeted initiatives aimed at improving digital literacy and access to technology among vulnerable groups. By addressing these barriers, healthcare providers can better meet the evolving needs of their patients and ensure that their mental health and wellbeing is valued.

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