The impact of the pandemic on behavioral health, along with recent statements from many notable athletes and celebrities, have pushed mental and emotional well-being into the mainstream consciousness. It’s about time.
Spending on behavioral and mental health has risen as people seek help dealing with illness, unemployment and social isolation, all in a fast-paced and stressful world. However, the digital revolution that has changed many aspects of our daily lives has yet to emerge in the field of behavioral healthcare.
The World Health Organization notes that depression and anxiety alone cost the global economy an estimated $1 trillion annually in lost productivity. Spending in the United States on treatment and behavioral health services—treatment, prescription medications, and accommodations in psychiatric or substance abuse rehabilitation facilities—was $225 billion in 2019, an increase of 52% since 2009. The pandemic has further exacerbated the situation.
The Covid-19 crisis will have long-term consequences for mental health, and these consequences must be prioritized. In 2019, about 11% of American adults surveyed by the US Census Bureau reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. This percentage rose to 42% by December 2020 and is likely to increase.
However, a focus and shift in behavioral health was in the making prior to Covid-19. Over the past 10 years, an increasing number of digital behavioral health startups have been launched to meet the needs of patients and clinicians, and investment data backs this up. In 2020, mental health startup funding was more than $1.5 billion, which is 5.5 times what the $275 million investors paid in 2016, according to data from CB Insights. In the same four-year period, the number of deals nearly doubled, from 69 to 124.
There is no slowdown in sight, with funding in the first quarter of 2021 alone reaching $795 million, about 50% of the total in 2020, as mental health startups continue to battle for market dominance. At aMoon, we recently invested in Eleos Health, which has developed an “operating system” rooted in voice artificial intelligence (AI) to support the future of evidence-based behavioral health therapy sessions. We know that need and demand exist, and we believe that access to care and quality of care must be intertwined to make a real impact in behavioral care.
The importance of increased reach
Before the pandemic, nearly half of adults and children with mental health conditions in the United States were without any treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Adding to this situation is a shortage of mental health counselors, and it is clear that another national health crisis is looming.
The numbers are amazing:
o More than 10,000 marriage and family therapists
– 15,400 psychiatrists
– 27,000 mental health counselors
o More than 48000 social workers
– 57,000 psychologists
No wonder the access solution, a major focus of many startups, such as Lyra, Mindstrong and TalkSpace, is among the top 10 funded digital behavioral health companies. Many of these companies are already unicorns. A growing number of apps aim to provide various forms of emotional support and behavioral therapy, as do specialist companies like AmWell, Omada and Livongo (now part of Teladoc). This indicates the scale of the access problem, and the market appears to accommodate both ad hoc and generic approaches.
Virtual therapy sessions help solve some access issues, but they were the exception rather than the rule before the pandemic. A May 2020 survey by the American Psychiatric Association found that 63.6% of the 500 members who responded had never used virtual sessions before the pandemic. Just two months into the public health emergency, that percentage has dropped to 1.9%. This represents a fundamental change and shows how quickly the industry can implement improvements.
Improving quality by adding technology
The shift from physical sessions to telemedicine appointments is redefining the patient experience. It also transforms clinicians’ practice by making it easier to provide and integrate data analytics. These valuable insights can help practitioners transition to evidence-based care, where data is collected in a similar way through electronic medical records (EMR) and used by most clinicians.
The AI platform can work seamlessly in the background of treatment sessions, capturing every interaction and creating a baseline for clinical feedback. This saves clinicians time – time they better spend on patients – and provides data-driven insights about session, patient progress and guidance for future interactions. The platform meets all privacy regulations (HIPAA compliant) and session content is anonymized after a few weeks.
Improved mental health care that integrates human and artificial intelligence is still in its infancy. While there are significant challenges to address, the potential benefits are enormous for all stakeholders: patients, therapists, providers and payers.
It is not enough simply to provide patients with more access to care without ensuring that sessions are as useful as possible. When employed in a careful and well-managed manner, AI has the potential to help therapists elicit useful insights and deliver better care in a timely manner. This can also have a positive effect on the patient’s physical condition. There is an increasing prevalence of comorbidity of mental and physical illness, with increasing costs to the patient and the health care system. Ensuring timely and effective mental health treatment is critical to improving people’s physical health.
While the human brain (and spirit) is complex with its own set of challenges, collecting data from behavioral health sessions in a consistent, measurable, and accessible way—as we have done for many years with physical illnesses—is essential to our ultimate goal: better care and better outcomes.
Photo: metamorworks, Getty Images