The global pandemic has highlighted the importance of mental health and transformed the healthcare landscape.
Socially distant mental wellness options such as telepsychiatry, digital therapy, and other nontraditional behavioral health interventions for conditions including depression, anxiety, and stress have dramatically increased since the onset of the pandemic. Relaxed regulatory barriers to virtual care and telehealth, along with widespread adoption of mobile technologies, have expedited the rise of myriad digital mental health solutions. A growing number of insurers are recognizing the potential of these new technologies to increase overall access and quality of mental healthcare.
The Business of Mental Health
Lack of access to mental healthcare is associated with negative health outcomes resulting from increased stress, depression, and anxiety. This is especially important to employers as untreated mental health conditions may result in losses to productivity, engagement, and retention. Before COVID-19, over 200 million workdays were lost due to mental health conditions annually — at a cost to employers of $17 to $44 billion. According to the United Nations, mental illness costs the global economy more than $1 trillion every year.
The current crisis has only exacerbated these health issues. As a result, coverage for mental and behavioral health tools, previously an afterthought, are now seen as critical elements of business continuity plans. Virtual care options will likely remain necessary to service an increasingly remote workforce as post-crisis remote working rates are likely to remain well above pre-pandemic levels.
Rise of Mental Health Technologies
Demand for mental health services has skyrocketed during the pandemic and spurred major growth – the mental health and wellness space has seen a surge in deal activity and funding, with investors pouring well over $1 billion into mental health and wellness startups through the third quarter of 2020. Leaders in funding include Mindstrong, a virtual therapy and psychiatric care company that connects users through a mobile app and utilizes a patented biomarker panel to measure cognitive function. Another standout in 2020 has been Omada Health, a San Francisco-based digital health company that offers online programs for multiple conditions through health coaching and interactive lessons. Also receiving significant attention and funding has been Headspace, a meditation and mindfulness platform that offers programs to tackle everyday issues like stress, loneliness, anxiety, and more.
While mental health technologies have boomed during COVID-19, the trend was already gaining traction before the pandemic. In 2019, over 10,000 smartphone apps related to mental health were available, each with their own unique capabilities with regard to digital intervention, remote monitoring, physical data sensors, and behavioral therapy techniques. Mental health coverage by health insurers has increased, driven by factors such as greater digital adoption and reduced regulatory barriers to digital therapy solutions. This has dramatically accelerated the industry’s growth and helped weed out many of the pretenders. Early entrant mental health technology companies are now becoming mainstream in healthcare.
The Insurtech Solution
Many insurers across the globe have taken the current crisis as an opportunity to partner with digital platforms, applications, virtual care companies, and other service providers to help policyholders safely and remotely manage their mental health. The most common of these solutions are digital apps that provide either self-managed mental health (mindfulness and stress relief apps like Headspace), direct connection to mental health providers (on demand support companies such as ginger.io), or a combination of the two types of services. In addition to improved engagement with therapists and an enhanced user experience, some new players are introducing unique new features. Innovative new apps such as BetterHelp are opting out of the traditional fee-for-service mental healthcare model and utilizing a more affordable subscription approach, allowing for unlimited visits or check-ins with therapists between visits through computer or phone.
Which of these innovations/interventions are most likely to gain traction in the long run remains unknown. Certainly no single standalone solution or “silver bullet” platform has yet emerged. Prior research into outcomes in this area of the digital health field has shown that the most effective mental health apps are those that can be customized to each patient and fit their personal care goals and needs. Hybrid solutions, ones that offer a blend of one-on-one contact along with online or app-based treatment, are considered by many in the mental health field to hold the most promise. In order to develop products that not only resonate with their consumer but also improve health outcomes, insurers should pay close attention to developments in this space and seek to align with mental health services that are evidence-based and efficacious. Likewise, it is important not to discount wellness apps that utilize meditation and behavioral change exercises to improve mental health. Not only are these popular with a wide user base, they play a proactive role in stress management and heading off serious mental health issues before they begin.
The Road Ahead
The pandemic has helped diminish the negative stigma traditionally associated with mental health services and also highlighted the need for new options for patients to stay connected with caregivers between episodes of care. Teletherapy services and remote mental wellness apps will likely see continued demand after the coronavirus outbreak subsides. We have yet to see the pandemic’s long-term effects on mental health, and continued economic fallout may bring a looming secondary mental health crisis in the near future.
Fueled by the universal feelings of anxiety wrought by the global crisis, remote mental healthcare has become a necessity. There is a growing recognition for the need for healthcare to take care of the whole person, rather than just treating a single condition. This signals an opportunity for insurers to consider mental wellness tools as more than simple value-added services, but as catalysts to engage and encourage policyholders in promoting and protecting their-long term health and wellbeing.