Telehealth helps stop suicidal ideation for many patients, study finds

Photo: Dr. Mimi Winsberg

Recently, the Journal of Medical Internet Research published some significant data highlighting the efficacy of psychiatric care delivered through telehealth: Those in the treatment group were 4.3 times more likely to have suicidal ideation remission.

This is noteworthy because telehealth has not traditionally been equipped to treat those with the most severe symptoms of mental health due to the oversight necessary to actually provide safe, effective treatment, said Dr. Mimi Winsberg, chief medical officer at Brightside Health, which led the study.

We spoke with Winsberg to get an in-depth look at this study and what the results mean for the future of telehealth and mental healthcare.

Q. Please talk about your new study that examines the impact of telepsychiatry on reduction in suicidal ideation over time. Who was involved? What kind of care did they receive? What role did technology play?

A. The study, which was published in JMIR Formative Research, sought to determine if Brightside Health’s telehealth platform, which is equipped with precision prescribing clinical decision support, could successfully reduce suicidal ideation among enrolled patients, versus a control group who tracked their symptoms on the platform without receiving care.

Another goal of the study was to describe the symptom clusters of patients who present with suicidal ideation in order to better understand the psychiatric symptoms associated with suicidal feelings. The study was large scale including participants of diverse geography and social demographics.

It included a total of 8,581 people who completed a digital intake on the Brightside platform. Of those, 8,366 elected to receive psychiatric care from Brightside, while 215 tracked their symptoms on the platform without receiving care.

Those who elected to receive psychiatric care through Brightside received a minimum of 12 weeks of treatment that included video visits with their providers, asynchronous messaging, and a prescription of at least one psychiatric medication.

Brightside’s technology platform was used to deliver clinically validated measures of depression and anxiety, as well as questions about clinical presentation, medical history and demographics. The proprietary precision-prescribing platform embedded in the tech platform analyzes these data points using an empirically derived algorithm to provide real-time care guidelines and clinical decision support to its providers using a computerized symptom cluster analysis.

Q. The study led to some very promising outcomes. Please describe them and the success you achieved with telemedicine.

A. The study found that patients enrolled in Brightside Health’s telehealth platform had reduced suicidal ideation after 12 weeks of treatment. Patients who received treatment via Brightside Health were also 4.3 times more likely to have remission of their suicidal ideation than the control group who were monitored on the platform but did not receive care.

The results demonstrated that a telehealth platform equipped with clinical decision support was an effective intervention for the symptom of suicidal ideation.

In addition, we found that suicidal ideation had higher correlations with cognitive symptoms of hopelessness and poor feelings of self-worth, than with the physical symptoms of depression such as disrupted sleep and low energy.

Q. Telehealth hasn’t traditionally been equipped to treat these kinds of patients. What made the difference here?

A. Historically, we have not relied on telehealth solutions to address more serious symptoms of depression. Clinicians are hesitant to treat individuals with suicidal ideation over telehealth because of the perceived risks.

However, the results of this study are significant because they demonstrate effectiveness in treating these symptoms through a telehealth platform with clinical decision support, which may help alleviate concerns about the use of telehealth in addressing suicidal ideation.

Telehealth can involve more than simply connecting a provider and patient via video camera. The telehealth platform used for the study was equipped with novel features such as remote patient monitoring and clinical decision support.

A sophisticated telehealth intervention can assiduously track symptom presentation and outcomes with measurement-based care, and offer real-time interventions along with machine learning and algorithmically based clinical decision support to select the best treatment.

Q. What does all of this mean for the future of telemedicine and mental health?

A. The future of mental health via telemedicine promises more widespread adoption of solutions for the majority of behavioral health conditions, even those with increasing severity of symptoms. We may see telehealth deployed for more serious mental illness, particularly when the telehealth platform can incorporate novel technologies to optimize care delivery.

Additionally, as payers and providers collaborate to deliver more effective care; telehealth will likely become more than a means to deliver care, but also a way to enhance care delivery, and provide highly effective care to those who need it most with expediency.

At Brightside Health, we will continue to research the impact of telehealth treatment across the spectrum of mental health conditions, including those on the higher end of the severity axis. To that end, we are launching Crisis Care, a first of its kind program delivered nationally and over telehealth to treat patients with active suicidal ideation.

The program is grounded in the evidence-based Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS) framework. This study in JMIR Formative Research laid the foundation for this program, and we are seeing an obvious need for such a national program in the U.S., where one person dies from suicide every 11 minutes. We look forward to furthering this important – and life-saving – work.

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Email the writer: [email protected]
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