Medhealth Review

Clinically-proven digital solutions offer new options to address the impact of mental health on population health and medical costs

The scope of mental health problems can often be invisible, but the effects are not. Ineffective management of mental health compounds mental and physical health problems and fuels out-of-control medical costs. Any path to effectively manage health care costs must include the integration of high-value digital mental health services which can drive high utilization and compelling outcomes. 

While over half of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lifetime, only 21% of Americans will ever seek treatment, due to stigma, fear of discrimination, cost, or limited access. 77% of U.S. counties report a severe shortage of mental health providers, and even those who can afford to access mental health treatment are often forced to travel long distances or wait months for appointments due to provider shortages across the country. Effective digital mental health program design, backed by decades of gold-standard research, eliminates these barriers to access by providing access to both self-paced programs and clinically-trained professionals without lengthy wait times or complicated approval processes.

Digital programs offer a scalable solution by making on-demand, affordable help available at the click of a button, at the time and place a sufferer feels the most comfortable and ready to engage. 

Although many people view physical and mental health as independent problems, mental wellbeing and physical wellbeing are undeniably interconnected. When left untreated, mental health problems can worsen existing physical conditions or lead to new health concerns, including high blood pressure, obesity, chronic pain, a weakened immune system, and an increased risk for heart attack and strokes. These conditions lead to significant healthcare claims, hospitalizations and ED admissions, resulting in greater public health challenges and higher costs.

Providing effective, high value mental health support and encouraging patients to utilize those services can have an outsized impact on long-term outcomes, improve mental and physical health and quality of life, and lower costs. Patients who experience common mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, or substance abuse, have annual health care costs that are, on average, $6,500 to $12,700 higher – excluding the cost of behavioral healthcare – than individuals with no mental health conditions. And research shows that employers that support innovative mental health programs see a return of $4 for every dollar invested in mental health treatment, with savings in total medical costs, increased productivity, lower absenteeism and decreased disability costs.  

The good news is that many mental health problems can be effectively addressed using digital tools, and there are more options today than ever.  But with so many choices, how can health plans and employers choose the right solution for the needs of their communities? 

Here are the most important elements that plans and employers should take into account in developing their approach to digital mental health:

  1. Clinical backing
    First and foremost, is the approach clinically validated and proven to work? For example, have the programs been extensively studied, do they have demonstrated strong results and has the provider published peer-reviewed research and other data? 
  2. User engagement
    It doesn’t matter how well designed a digital mental health program is if it isn’t being used on a regular basis—and at scale. In order for users to engage often, digital programs must be easy to use, highly interactive, and show sufferers how they are improving. Gamification, regular progress assessments, and access to live clinician coaching are all factors that can help users complete the programs and see measurable improvement. 
  3. Privacy and confidentiality
    Widespread stigma surrounding mental health and accessing traditional services prevents millions of Americans from ever seeking help. In fact, only 20% of workers in the United States feel comfortable talking about their mental health problems. To overcome this stigma and maximize access, programs which are confidential, secure and private, where limited or no personally identifiable information is shared with an employer or health plan, creates an environment in which all sufferers feel comfortable engaging.
  4. Reporting and tracking results
    Programs must have robust reporting, often in the aggregate, in order for plans and employers to track utilization, clinical outcomes, and associated cost reductions based on those outcomes. 

Employers, health care providers, and health plans alike are increasingly seeing the advantage of incorporating clinically-validated digital mental health programs into their approach to population health and cost management. It is clear that appropriately designed and delivered digital mental health support provides tremendous opportunity to engage sufferers at much greater scale while still driving meaningful clinical outcomes.

By Dale Cook, Co-founder and CEO at Learn to Live

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