In a given year, approximately 1 in 5 adults will experience a mental illness.[i] Mental illness is a debilitating and often uphill battle for the many people who conquer it day in and day out. But, thanks to highly-mobilized patient advocacy groups, patients and caregivers are equipped with the resources to find help and awareness – minus the stigma – of mental illness is on the rise. And, continuing R&D investments from pharmaceutical companies allow researchers to find ways to create new medicines (and evolve longstanding treatment approaches) to provide healthcare professionals and their patients with several options to help meet that person’s individual needs.
But, despite the growing awareness and investment, accessing care may still prove challenging. According to the global patient advocacy group Mental Health America, despite the introduction of the 2008 Mental Health Parity law, some state exchange health plans still have a ways to go in order to put mental health benefits on par with physical health benefits.[ii] And, even with the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which mandates that certain mental health services be covered, there are people who may not receive the care they need because the therapist-to-patient ratio remains uneven.
For those in need of more frequent counseling but cannot afford the cost of treatment, or who have difficulty keeping up with regular counselor visits, enter the age of mobile apps and doctor-on-demand services. The concept of “doctor on demand” catapulted with the launch of Pager, a startup launched in 2014 that allowed New York City residents to request an in-person visit from a board-certified doctors through a mobile app by paying a standardized fee. And recently, the popular transportation service Uber launched a “flash” on-demand flu vaccine service through UberHEALTH across more than 35 U.S. cities, bringing wellness packs and free flu shots for $10. Now, companies such as Talkspace.com are extending the reach of mobile healthcare specialty services, evolving the way people access and interact with a counselor.
According to its website, Talkspace connects people with licensed therapists for “mobile enabled text-based therapy sessions.” Talkspace offers a safe and secure place to connect with licensed therapists on a number of challenges, though it isn’t intended to “create an alternative or competitor to offline therapy.” Instead, the service aims to “create a doorway for dealing with real life issues that may be an element in our lives, but may not necessarily require full clinical psychiatric process.”
It costs roughly $100 a month for unlimited texting with a therapist, which, depending on the parameters set by individual insurance coverage, can be less expensive than many therapy services. Similar to other doctor-on-demand/telemedicine concierge services, Talkspace does not accept health insurance.
It’s no surprise that the internet is becoming a leading resource for how consumers access health information and get insights from others who have gone through similar experiences. By bringing mental health counseling right to your fingertips, Talkspace may be able to overcome the limitations of only getting to see a psychologist once or twice-weekly (or as mandated by insurance). While it doesn’t replace the face-to-face interaction and thorough conversations you could have with a therapist, it does appear to provide an attractive, more immediate solution – and one that just might be enough to help provide support to people through the discretion of their mobile devices.
That being said, the introduction of on demand services encourages communications professionals, pharmaceutical companies and patient advocacy groups to think critically about how they evolve how they engage with patients in the potential decline of more frequent in-office visits. As counselors to the industry, it’s upon us to consider innovative strategies for keeping patient-physician interaction strong by amplifying disease awareness efforts and encouraging proactive patient-physician communications, especially as new treatments options are brought to market – thus demanding the need to simplify complex, scientific information in terms patients and their loved ones can understand and use. As the management of mental illness is complex and requires a holistic approach, we can’t forget about the importance of equipping patient and caregiver advocacy organizations with the tools they need to educate and empower patients as they discover both medical and psychosocial treatment approaches that are best for their individual needs.
[i] National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Mental Illness By the Numbers. Available at: https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers.
[ii] Mental Health America: Parity or Disparity: The State of Mental Health in America, 2015. Available at: https://timedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/parity_or_disparity_report_final.pdf.