J Technol Behav Sci. 2022 Mar 28:1-11. doi: 10.1007/s41347-022-00248-4. Online ahead of print.
A statewide COVID-19 quarantine order forced an abrupt shift for Louisiana’s behavioral health providers who provide mental health and substance abuse treatment services. The Center for Evidence to Practice conducted a study of this unprecedented shift to better understand the disruption and continuation of care during early statewide adoption of telemental health. The Center performed a mixed-method assessment including a series of focus groups and key informant interviews followed by a survey of over 300 responding providers. Over 85% of providers reported sustaining behavioral health services using a variety of telemental health strategies. While traditional referral networks and client volume were significantly disrupted, temporary relaxation of Medicaid regulatory and reimbursement policies appeared to be a key facilitator of telemental health adoption and continued services. Shifting to telemental health relied on provider’s quick adaptations, engaging clients with a hybrid of teleconferencing platforms, calls/texts, and socially-distanced in-person visits. Larger multi-clinician providers and evidence-based practice (EBP) providers were better equipped to support the adoption of telemental health. Rural and EBPs providers disproportionately discontinued services. Although many practitioners viewed the original COVID-19 pandemic as a short-lived condition, the recent emergence of Delta and other variants has shown the impact on the BH care system may be lasting. Flexibility across policies and a variety of telemental health platforms are keys to telehealth adaptation. However, the contraction of the client base raises concerns of increasing disparities among vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations if telemental health becomes a sustained approach in response to future COVID-19 variants.