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Five 2021 Behavioral Health Challenges and Opportunities for Providers

Five 2021 Behavioral Health Challenges and Opportunities for Providers

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,” said Albert Einstein. This is a truth witnessed over and over in the disruption caused by the pandemic. Indeed, amidst the fear and hardships, revelations of sparkling new ideas, technology, data-driven solutions and cross-discipline team cooperation led the behavioral health industry to a sea of change and opportunity. The second half of 2021 is an open door all about preparation and using the slowdown to address long-term problems. Below, consider the 2021 behavioral health challenges, which may have initially felt like slamming doors.

But when unlocked through hard work and imagination, these challenges revealed opportunities to help behavioral health providers create better environments for everyone in the ecosystem.

Industry challenge 1: Barriers to the accessibility of services, especially in rural areas

The behavioral health industry is built on one-on-one, face-to-face, in-person contacts. That suddenly disappeared as the pandemic surged. It was a profoundly traumatic adjustment, making intakes, assessments and direct engagement difficult on practitioners and clients. Indeed, some clients could not adjust early on to connecting with staff by phone or video telehealth, sometimes outright refusing such services for scheduled appointments. This sudden disconnect further complicated treatment, making medication monitoring and injectables administration challenging.

It soon became clear that a digital divide exists for those with disabilities, those living in rural areas and those in tribal communities, each group lacking in financial and technical resources. Even cell phone access became more limited with far-out rural clients. Additionally, Pew Research recently reported that those with disabilities are three times less likely to go online and 20% less likely to own mobile devices or laptops, let alone have home-based WiFi access.

However, 2021 behavioral health challenges like these created a prime opportunity for change.

The flipside: Initiatives and organizations that facilitate access to behavioral health

The necessity to increase access to remote and telehealth technology for those unable has been brought to light as a result of the pandemic. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has instituted resources and guidance for practices in the behavioral health industry, which includes training and technical assistance, as well as a series of grants and support for providers, facilities, employers and the general public.

SAMHSA has also initiated the more flexible use of telebehavioral health for those with opioid disorders. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has even allowed for temporary exceptions regarding prescribing controlled substances using telemedicine.

Furthermore, the HHS Office for Civil Rights released the “Notification of Enforcement Discretion for Telehealth Remote Communications.” Providers can use popular apps that allow for video chats such as FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts video, Zoom and Skype to provide telehealth services. Public apps like these are typically a HIPAA noncompliance penalty, but exceptions were necessary due to 2021 behavioral health challenges.

With initiatives like these, bridging the digital divide opened exciting, new pathways for telebehavioral health services. For those with the least access, telehealth is an especially useful way to reach populations who otherwise are underserved. The “CARES Act Funding for Behavioral Health and Disaster Behavioral Health” perhaps goes the longest way to achieve this. Through this act, $2.09 trillion is dedicated to supporting steady-state behavioral healthcare systems, including support for tribal communities and Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics. In the most practical ways, the CARES Act provides additional funding for the expansion of broadband access for remote rural populations.

Industry challenge 2: Higher prevalence of behavioral health problems in the population

In the early days of the pandemic as the first reported cases surfaced in March 2020, behavioral health among all populations worsened. Anxiety and depression doubled in some locations. Confinement and intensifying COVID-19 death reports correlated directly with high rates of behavioral distress. This left the behavioral health industry over-stretched, requiring unprecedented levels of behavioral health support to prevent far worse damage.

The flipside: Personalized care and increased effectiveness of practices

Soon, practices implemented new behavioral health information, policy and coping strategies. For instance, providers added a host of new apps to reassert personalized care for clients. But, changes to support these practices also evolved. Employers enacted new employee benefits for differentiated behavioral health support (that effectively improved performance and retention). Policymakers also forged cross-industry partnerships aimed to create shared frameworks that refocused on new innovations in behavioral health technology.

Industry challenge 3: Stress and burnout among staff

While the world was struggling, they were also lining up to get treatment from behavioral health providers in record numbers. As a result, 78% of psychiatrists reported burnout; 16% of psychiatrists screened for major depression; and 90% of college counseling center practitioners reported burnout once the pandemic started.

The flipside: Safer work environments, with staff much more open to learning and improvement

Facing these 2021 behavioral health challenges, providers found that they had to institute safer work environments for themselves, which included spotting burnout, instilling self-care on the job and getting social support. As these providers adjusted to new ways of connecting to clients, they found real gifts in the technology assets. In fact, many intend to continue online practices, and many new job opportunities have opened as a result. It’s a kind of renaissance in the industry.

Industry challenge 4: Working remotely and the necessity for policy changes

Access to teleworking exploded after the pandemic, but preparation for that was clumsy and hard on the behavioral health of employees, especially regarding insured access to telebehavioral health from home. In addition, the slowdown of professional education and licensing created further challenges to adding practitioners to already understaffed practices.

The flipside: Improvements in employer remote work policies and insurance benefits

The statistics show an overall positive acceptance of remote work, with some hoping to have some sort of hybrid environment:

  • 83% of employers say remote work has been successful for their company.
  • Less than one in five executives want to return to the office.
  • 13% of executives do not want to return to physical offices at all.
  • 87% of employees look forward to once again collaborating in person.
  • 55% of employees would prefer to be remote at least three days a week.
  • 87% of companies intend to change their physical spaces, including consolidating office space and opening more satellite locations.

A helpful change came from payers leveraging data to develop new depths of relationships with members, which resulted in improved methods for preventive interventions to address behavioral health needs.

Industry challenge 5: Adaptation to new behavioral health technology

The technology for electronic health records (EHR) has been available and institutionalized for quite some time. However, the pandemic opened a vein in behavioral health practices. One critical issue was that EHRs were not specific enough to their industry, and they needed features that worked specifically for their segment.

The flipside: Streamlining practices with EHR/EMR

Amid 2021 behavioral health challenges, the integration is blossoming. Behavioral health EHR systems have evolved to integrate with external systems like hospitals, RHIOs, HIEs and other networks. This integration changes so much, providing new cross-specialty care.

Clients are aware of privacy issues and need the confidence to know their data is safe. With cloud-based solutions and secure data, integration of the client record across multiple providers improves care and health.

Among the industry-specific adaptations to the EHR include:

  • Easy check-in for virtual visits.
  • Documentation standardization.
  • Secure messaging.
  • Scripted triaging.
  • Evidence-based tools.
  • Real-time data analytics.

Core Solutions, Inc. can help address 2021 behavioral health challenges

Core Solutions, Inc. helps behavioral health providers modernize. Contact Core today to discuss how Core's Cx360 platform can turn your 2021 behavioral health challenges into opportunities and solutions.

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