Improving Access to Behavioral Health Care: A Focus on Equity
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on the psychological wellbeing of the communities Bellin Health serves, at once increasing the need for mental health services and presenting a new opportunity to provide those services in a safe and effective manner.
To address well-documented transportation challenges, ease the way for the patients it serves and provide an alternative to traditional in-person mental health services, Bellin Psychiatric Center (BPC) began providing virtual visits in March 2020. The center quickly grew from a volume of a single visit that month to an average of 2,454 virtual visits per month during fiscal year 2021.
“At Bellin Health, we live our vision that the people in our region will be their healthiest during every stage of their lives, and our communities will thrive,” said BPC Department Chair Dr. Emily Rademacher, a psychiatrist who was part of the multi-specialty improvement team that spearheaded the change. “Mental health is a key aspect of this commitment, and we knew we had to do things differently to truly meet the increasing needs of our communities.”
Dr. Rademacher worked with BPC Hospital Operations Director Debbie Patz and Ambulatory Clinical Services Director Marilou Counard to launch the improvement team, which included clinical experts as well as representatives from the legal, information technology, billing, coding and scheduling areas. The team worked together to address and overcome challenges, including scheduling process changes, obtaining appropriate authorizations and consents and working with variations in patients’ technical access and ability.
The benefits of this ongoing improvement work have been many, including removing transportation-related time, cost, work and childcare barriers for patients. The improvement team successfully assisted in the recruitment of four telemedicine providers into historically challenging-to-recruit roles, and the virtual offering improved efficiency and allowed the expansion of therapy and group therapy services. Many patients felt safer and more comfortable staying at home due to the pandemic, and clinical observation of the patient in his or her home environment assisted provider diagnosis and treatment plans. What’s more, the technology improved the ability to see patients’ facial expressions and presentation without the barrier of a mask.
The improvement team continues to work on ongoing gaps in rural access and for elderly patients. At the same time, they are celebrating the launch and rapid expansion of this service and all it means for the patients and communities they serve.
“This improvement journey allowed us to eliminate a transportation gap that was influencing equity challenges to receiving care,” Patz said. “Now we can easily see patients when they are sick, homebound or constrained by geography, allowing us to provide the care they need to address this critical aspect of overall health. We will continue our work to improve this service for all who need it.”