Partnerships Between Behavioral Health & Telemedicine Drive Real Value and Impact Outcomes

The following is a guest blog post by Dr. Bill Bithoney, Managing Director and Chief Physician Executive with The BDO Center for Healthcare Excellence & Innovation.
Bill Bithoney
The behavioral health and medical care delivery systems have long been separate, but the tides are changing. We’re starting to see more of a push to integrate the two, and it’s a trend expected to continue. Increased efforts to grow behavioral health service capacity through better integration with clinical care have health systems turning toward telemedicine. The benefits of this partnership are almost considered a “no brainer” when you take a look at the numbers and the opportunity for growth:

  • $6 billion: Where the telemedicine market will grow by 2020, according to the American Medical Association.
  • 7 million: The number of individuals with co-occurring substance abuse disorders and mental health issues, according to SAMHSA’s most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  • 38 percent: The number of adults with diagnosable mental health problems who actually receive needed treatment, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Still, providers and payors often find themselves asking, “How can I ensure this partnership will drive real value for the organization and impact outcomes?”

Telemedicine provides caregivers the ability to be in multiple locations at once – and provides patients access to care at times and places more convenient to them. As noted above, only 38 percent of adults with diagnosable mental health problems actually receive treatment. This means that more than 60 percent of individuals who know they need help aren’t able to receive it due to commonly cited challenges of not knowing where to go, inconvenience and lack of transportation. Further, psychiatrists, particularly those certified in addiction treatment, are in high demand nationwide. Indiana, which is experimenting with behavioral health telemedicine, has 462 in a state that should have 600.

And telemedicine has been proven effective in behavioral health treatment in numerous studies. Smartphones and apps are actually preferred by patients over prescriptions for medication. Through practices such as screening, brief intervention and referral to treatment (SBIRT)—included in Medicare telehealth services since 2013­­—problematic use issues, abuse and dependence on alcohol and illicit drugs can be proactively identified, reduced and prevented before ballooning into something greater. Moreover, the reduction in facility costs and increased access to patients makes telehealth, and telepsychiatry specifically, a cost-effective alternative to in-person treatments, while delivering much needed care.

Virtual visits and virtual early intervention through SBIRT impact not only the consumer’s health by extending the potential reach of substance abuse and mental health providers, but also the finances of the individual’s employer and insurer since the risks of costly and unanticipated urgent care and emergency department visits are greatly reduced. Additionally, insurers view this aggregation of data as a way to proactively monitor patients’ health, which can help prevent the risk of costly hospital admissions and readmissions.

The era of a partnership between behavioral health and telemedicine is upon us. Developing new avenues to deliver care that support behavior change, while engaging individuals in their own health, can not only be a more cost-effective strategy than simply providing more (or different) health care services, but can also be a smarter strategy to ensure better quality of care.

Dr. Bill Bithoney is a Managing Director and Chief Physician Executive with The BDO Center for Healthcare Excellence & Innovation. He can be reached at