The COVID-19 outbreak is upon us and it’s spreading quickly. As with previous viral epidemics, we are looking at exponential growth, not a linear one. An example of that is the situation in Italy:
This outbreak has and will probably continue to have a huge ripple effect across industries and continents, from travel and hospitality to healthcare and insurance. Based on reports from Israel, South Korea, China, Europe, and the U.S., it is clear that the infection chain will continue to increase the number of patients arriving at the ER, seeing their PCP, and in need of mental health support and care.
In fact, both the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) published a special note on how to cope with the stigma and anxiety surrounding this virus. According to the note, because there is a lot of uncertainty around the virus (severity of infection, implications on patients with chronic medical conditions, and more) in addition to the increasing number of people in self-isolation, this gives rise to fear and anxiety in the general population.
Mental Healthcare Challenges Arising from the Coronavirus
Access to Care
The current shortage of mental and behavioral health clinicians can only get worse. More and more patients dealing with anxiety will be looking for care, expecting providers to be able to help and support them. Digital and telemedicine solutions will be of aid, however, the demand-supply equation will eventually hit an inflection point where clinicians who were used to practicing 3–4 hours a day on an external telehealth platform will be called and expected to deliver care with their primary provider setting in the face of increasing demand. This might push providers to adopt in-house telemedicine capabilities (using Zoom HIPAA Compliance app for example). Lastly, as clinicians will face more patients, a potential increase in their anxiety level might be possible as well.
Quality of Care
Providers who consistently demonstrate superior outcomes (such as anxiety/depression remission and length of stay) will be in a better position to cope with the lack of access to care. A higher level of care will enable them to reach more patients and increase throughput as patients recover quickly. This will have an effect on ER visits, referrals to specialists, and lowered costs for patients dealing with chronic medical conditions who are the most likely to suffer during this outbreak.
There are more patients, more demand, and more administrative work carried out by clinicians. Clinicians are now forced to quickly handle their reports and EMR inputs in order to help the system manage its operational continuity. Without adequate support, clinicians will fail to meet turnaround expectations, increasing overload and burnout.
Potential next steps
Implementation of digital solutions. In the immediate term, telemedicine can be a great solution to ramp up clinical supply and solve accessibility issues. With every challenge comes an opportunity to utilize innovation as a springboard for success.
Consider ways to improve the quality of care. Measuring outcomes, increased fidelity to evidence-based treatment protocols (such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), and integrated behavioral health have been shown in a wide range of clinical research and publications to have a direct effect on improving outcomes.
Accelerate independent clinical training and supervision. The shortage of clinicians will force supervisors and senior therapists to engage more in hands-on treatment and engage less with classic supervision and mentoring. In addition, nation-wide cancellation of professional conferences and events will damage clinicians’ personal growth. Solutions empowering therapists by allowing independent learning and streamlining supervision processes can relieve some of that pressure.
Manage operational continuity. The Coronavirus is here to stay for the near future, it is not a sprint, but a marathon. Managers and directors should provide clinicians with a long-term plan to effectively manage their schedules and overload.
Communicate ways to decrease anxiety levels to your patients/population. According to the CDC, such measures may include: Avoid excessive exposure to media coverage of COVID-19. Take care of your body. Take deep breaths, stretch or meditate. Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep and avoid alcohol and drugs. Make time to unwind and remind yourself that strong feelings will fade. Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories. It can be upsetting to hear about the crisis and see images repeatedly. Try to do some other activities you enjoy to return to your normal life.
The COVID-19 outbreak is intimidating and will be sure to have a major effect on our surroundings, however, given the right solutions, tools, policies and internal procedures in place, providers can be assured that their patients will receive an excellent level of care while managing to support the increasing demand.