The lasting appeal of behavioral telehealth

Taft Parsons, M.D.

Corporate Medical Director


Dr. Parsons is a psychiatrist who is applying his expertise to address the integrated needs of Humana’s membership and to guide the enterprise’s strategy for behavioral health.
As it did for primary care, telemedicine became vital connective tissue between specialists and those seeking care for their mental well-being.

Behavioral telehealth trend lines paralleled those of general telemedicine at the outset of the pandemic, taking off during the spring and early summer. As virtual clinical medicine as a whole tapered off months into the outbreak, behavioral telehealth visits remained relatively steady.

MA members affiliated with value-based physicians took part in nearly 628,000 behavioral visits, representing roughly 21% of all telemedicine visits in 2020. The usage rate per thousand among value-based members over non-value-based hovered between 5% and 10% each month between May and December.1

Experts and practices incorporating behavioral telehealth attribute the consistent use to convenience to both patients and practitioners and the ability for those needing assistance to obtain help more privately.

This platform is critical in providing value, delivering greater value and supporting the clinical model.
Dr. Matt Ruble
Humana’s lead medical director for behavioral health

Why it matters:

The coronavirus pandemic took an obvious physical toll on Americans. Prolonged restrictions and lockdowns that came with it exacerbated other kinds of pain and struggle within behavioral health.

Anxiety. Depression. Substance abuse.

“There are many barriers to getting to the front door and a stigma with behavioral health. Telehealth does away with that,” said Dr. Matt Ruble, Humana’s lead medical director for behavioral health “This platform is critical in providing value, delivering greater value and supporting the clinical model.”

The way forward:

Primary care physicians in value-based arrangements have recognized the impact of behavioral health issues on physical well-being, and many have begun incorporating behavioral specialists into their practices. That way, when a patient presents with potential psychological and emotional concerns, there can be an immediate, smooth handoff.

“The setup lends itself perfectly to integration, especially in regard to timeliness,” Ruble said.

TriHealth in Cincinnati began piloting integrated behavioral health in primary care practices in late 2016. The health system piggy-backed on that infrastructure to expand services during the pandemic, helped as well by state and federal changes enabling providers to bill for behavioral telehealth visits, including telephone visits, which were previously not allowed for psychologists and social workers.

A TriHealth survey of its affiliated primary care physicians showed that the integration is making a difference for patients and providers. Some 97% of physicians expressed satisfaction with the behavioral health services, 95% said the integration somewhat or significantly improved their ability to manage patient needs, and 92% reported somewhat or significantly improved job satisfaction. Meanwhile, TriHealth patients surveyed at the end of each visit about its helpfulness rated them an average of more than 9 on a 10-point scale.