Telehealth is one of the hottest topics at the HIMSS23 Conference & Exhibition – most especially since the COVID-19 pandemic brought the technology at long last into the mainstream of healthcare.

Benjamin Gonzales is quite familiar with the technology. He is operations manager II, virtual care, at Geisinger, an 11-hospital regional health system serving more than three million patients in 45 counties across Pennsylvania.

Healthcare IT News sat down with Gonzales to talk about health IT trends and his priorities at HIMSS23.

Q. As healthcare provider organization executives such as yourself gather for HIMSS23, what do you feel is the most important issue in healthcare information technology?

A. Demand for behavioral healthcare exploded during the pandemic. Restrictions on in-person care and clinician shortages made access to care difficult, leading to long wait times for appointments and potentially worse patient outcomes.

At the same time, it accelerated people’s willingness to engage with telehealth. Addressing these mental health issues will be a long, challenging journey, but it’s essential to the well-being of our nation. Creating the path for healing starts by addressing the shortage of mental health resources and improving access to high-quality care and counseling, which must be data-driven.

The pandemic also awakened patients to the convenience and efficiency telehealth options can provide. It’s clear that, for the foreseeable future, a significant percentage of patients will still desire to receive their psychiatric care remotely.

Being a good steward of patient-centered care means providing these options. Furthermore, with the rise of value-based care, health systems are beginning to see the impact consistent behavioral health services have on reducing downstream care costs.

Telepsychiatry will be central to many health system patient care plans, particularly to serve patients that face challenges related to social determinants of health, including location, transportation or other barriers to access. Behavioral health providers must adapt to telehealth not only to ensure optimal patient care but their own long-term success.

Q. What issues are you facing in your organization that you’re hoping to find help for from the HIMSS23 educational sessions and exhibit hall?

A. The biggest issue we face from a behavioral healthcare perspective comes down to access. And while our area has certainly experienced its own challenges with access like other communities, it was significantly compounded by three things.

First and most obvious, the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, we experienced a surge in demand much like other specialties in our system. Before the pandemic it was common for our department to have a couple hundred outstanding referrals. We quickly saw that increase to a maximum of 18,000 outstanding referrals.

As a department, we were at a point where it would take close to six months for patients to get in to see one of our providers. So, we knew that we needed to do something about it.

Another significant piece is our location. We’re a rural health system, and it’s not as easy for us to recruit people as it is for more urban health systems. And last, in my opinion, we simultaneously saw a lessening of stigma in the community surrounding behavioral health.

More people were willing to raise their hand and say, “I need help.” Ultimately, that resulted in us seeing a significant uptick in referrals. So, we needed to create surge access, and we needed to consider ways to easily get the patient the right service the first time rather than elongating their wait.

The result I’m the proudest of is reducing our referral queue from 18,000 patients to 3,000. That is astounding. We owe a lot of that to the surge capacity created by our Iris Telehealth team and the addition of the intake to help route patients to the right service the first time.

Q. What do you think are a couple of the major health IT challenges in the year ahead for CIOs, CMIOs, CISOs and other health IT leaders at provider organizations?

A. The pandemic cast an unflattering light on many of the challenges our national healthcare system currently is experiencing – most notably hospital capacity strain, supply chain issues and workforce burnout. It also compounded long-simmering issues that were already in desperate need of attention.

With added pressure on an already overwhelmed healthcare system, the pandemic amplified the need for behavioral health services and made it more difficult for people at risk to access care.

As health systems continue their pursuit of a comprehensive approach to delivering care, integrating behavioral health across the care continuum is the next phase in the evolution and momentum of standardizing patients’ access to care.

Like the acute and post-acute settings, expanding this capability into behavioral health settings will further unify the care process by helping ED clinicians discover resources they were previously unaware of as well as expose mental health and substance use rehabilitation organizations to a larger service area.

Not only would the streamlined process improve the outcome and experience for patients, but it would also help reduce ED overcrowding and lighten the burden on the limited clinical staff in the department.

Certainly, telehealth and virtual care isn’t a cure-all, but its adoption has impacted the care delivery spectrum highlighted by the move from episodic to continuous care and a renewed patient-centric focus on outcomes.

The demand for telepsychiatry services will continue to grow, fueled by patient needs, provider shortages and the emphasis on integrated care. Providers who embrace these services will not only improve the timeliness of the behavioral healthcare they deliver, the health of their patients, and their own work satisfaction, but also ensure their viability in a post-pandemic world.

Follow Bill’s HIT coverage on LinkedIn: Bill Siwicki
Email the writer: [email protected]
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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