Tablet-based telehealth keeps mental health services online during the pandemic
Stay-at-home orders put in place in March 2020 required New York City-based Goodwill NYNJ's offices to close. As a result, staff members needed to figure out how to maintain their two PROS (personalized recovery-oriented services) serving people with serious and persistent mental illness.
Early in the pandemic, New York State began allowing providers to bill Medicaid for telehealth services, which greatly impacted Goodwill NYNJ's ability to meet the needs of its mental illness population.
Keeping patients engaged
However, because the organization serves a vulnerable population with limited access to technology (many are low income, living in shelters), it needed a way to keep people engaged in service.
"Our proposal was to purchase laptops for staff (They had been using desktops in the office that could not be moved) and purchase tablets for the individuals in our PROS programs," said Kim Fitzpatrick, senior vice president of behavioral health services at Goodwill NYNJ.
"Both populations also needed reliable access to Wi-Fi/Internet via hotspots. By providing access to technology, our hope was that people would remain engaged in service and stay out of the hospital."
In mid-2020, Goodwill NYNJ was awarded $435,879 from the FCC telehealth funding program for connected devices, cellular data plans and hotspots to allow patients and providers to interact via voice and video platforms to avoid the need for in-person meetings to prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
"Adults with mental illness used the tablets to meet with their therapists and receive psychotherapy," Fitzpatrick explained. "Staff used laptops to provide psychotherapy, conduct wellness checks, and help people develop, practice and implement coping mechanisms. Further, we are conducting group sessions and creating opportunities for socialization among participants."
Increased participation, increased revenue
Since implementing the telehealth technology, Goodwill NYNJ has been able to increase participation, which has increased revenue.
"Overall, in both programs we've been able to meet the goal of four contacts per month for about 90% of the participants served," Fitzpatrick reported. "There are 10 people who participate in multiple groups per week. The increase in revenue cannot solely be attributed to increased contacts.
"Another factor is the billing schedule of tele-mental health services," she continued. "This has been less burdensome than pre-pandemic billing. Nonetheless, the tablets have made a huge difference in our ability to reach a wide range of PROS participants."
Attendance in groups has improved, and communication within the group has become more fluid and more dynamic, she added.
"Participants' ability to see their peers and their counselors has brought back a sense of community and fellowship that is critical to good mental health," she said.
Accessible treatment and socialization
Overall, the tablets have made treatment and socialization more accessible. One program had a holiday party, the counselor facilitated a scavenger hunt and a dance contest.
"While the level of competence in the use of technology varies, all of those who have opted to use the tablets have caught on quickly," Fitzpatrick said. "One staff member created a training video that has been instrumental in getting everyone trained on the tablets. It's been nice to see participants become more and more adept at using them."
It's also been nice, she concluded, to see them develop a sense of mastery. When someone new comes to a group, participants like to give tips on how to use the tablets.
Healthcare Everywhere, Every Day
The onset of the COVID-19 crisis a year ago, with its widespread quarantines and lockdowns, offered telemedicine its moment to shine after years of under-fulfilled promise. As states look toward a post-pandemic world it's time to build on that promise.