US adults with psychiatric illness experienced fewer disruptions in receiving psychotherapy following the transition to virtual psychiatric care that accompanied the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a large study has shown.
Retrospective study using electronic health records and insurance claims data from three large US health systems.
Sample included 110,089 patients with mental health conditions who attended at least two psychotherapy visits during the 9 months before and 9 months after the onset of COVID-19, defined in this study as March 14, 2020.
Outcome was disruption in psychotherapy, defined as a gap of more than 45 days between visits.
Before the pandemic, 96.9% of psychotherapy visits were in person and 35.4% were followed by a gap of more than 45 days.
After the onset of the pandemic, more than half of visits (51.8%) were virtual, and only 17.9% were followed by a gap of more than 45 days.
Prior to the pandemic, the median time between visits was 27 days and after the pandemic it dropped to 14 days, suggesting individuals were more likely to return for additional psychotherapy after the widespread shift to virtual care.
Over the entire study period, individuals with depressive, anxiety, or bipolar disorders were more likely to maintain consistent psychotherapy visits, whereas those with schizophrenia, ADHD, autism, conduct or disruptive disorders, dementia, or personality disorders were more likely to have a disruption in their visits.
"These findings support continued use of virtual psychotherapy as an option for care when appropriate infrastructure is in place. In addition, these findings support the continuation of policies that provide access to and coverage for virtual psychotherapy," the authors write.
The study, led by Brian K. Ahmedani, PhD, with the Center for Health Policy and Health Services Research, Henry Ford Health, Detroit, Michigan, was published online October 11 in Psychiatric Services.
The study was conducted in three large health systems with virtual care infrastructure already in place. Researchers did not examine use of virtual care for medication management or for types of care other than psychotherapy, which may present different challenges.
The study was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health. The authors have no relevant disclosures.