May 29, 2024

Disparities in Telehealth Availability for Mental Health Care Found Among Different Regions

A recent study has revealed significant variations in the availability of telehealth services for mental health care across different states in the United States. The study, conducted by researchers, found that while some states like Maine and Oregon had telehealth services available in every mental health treatment facility contacted, states like Mississippi and South Carolina had less than half of the facilities offering such services.

Furthermore, the research also uncovered differences in the types of services provided based on whether the mental health treatment facility was located in a rural or metropolitan area. Roughly 25% of the clinics surveyed did not offer virtual medication management, while approximately 33% did not provide virtual diagnostic services.

The findings of the study were derived from a “secret shopper” approach, where the researchers contacted nearly 2,000 clinics nationwide and attempted to schedule telehealth appointments for various mental health conditions while posing as patients belonging to different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The study results have been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Health Forum.

According to Jonathan Cantor, the lead author of the study and a policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization, “We found considerable variation in the types of services telehealth offered by mental health clinics across the U.S.” He further stated that there were no significant discrepancies in the availability of telehealth based on the caller’s stated mental health condition or perceived race and ethnicity.

The use of telehealth services has significantly expanded in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although telehealth usage in most medical fields has returned to pre-pandemic levels, it remains higher than before in the field of mental health care.

While several studies have examined the use of telehealth during the pandemic, little is known about the availability and composition of telehealth services specifically for mental health care. This includes aspects such as ease of access to appointments, the range of mental health conditions treated, the types of telehealth services offered, and the accepted types of insurance for payment.

Cantor emphasized the importance of understanding telehealth availability in order to inform policies that maximize its potential benefits for mental health care.

During the study, the researchers made phone calls to a nationally representative sample of 1,938 outpatient mental health treatment facilities catering to adults between December 2022 and March 2023. Utilizing a standardized client script, they inquired about the current availability of telehealth services in these facilities. Out of the attempted calls, only 1,404 clinics could be reached.

Cantor explained that they aimed to replicate the experience of a typical client seeking specialized care from a mental health treatment facility in the U.S. However, the fact that they were unable to reach anyone at one in five facilities suggests that many individuals may encounter difficulties in accessing mental health care.

Among the facilities successfully contacted, 87% reported accepting new patients, and 80% confirmed that they currently offered telehealth services. The median wait time for a telehealth appointment was slightly over two weeks, but there was significant geographic variation, ranging from over two months in mental health clinics in Maine to four days in clinics located in North Carolina.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it