As COVID-19 Infection Rates Soar, Northwell Boosts use of Telepsychiatry

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred Northwell Health to move the majority of its psychiatry appointments to online video or phone appointments, a change that has significantly reduced “no-shows.”

“Fewer Northwell patients are missing their appointments. Telehealth technology is helping them cope with the new stresses of depression and anxiety related to the pandemic, as well as pre-existing mental health issues. The more we can help patients and the sooner we can do it, the less likely they are to need emergency room care,” said Dr. Jonathan Merson, medical director of Northwell’s Behavioral Telehealth Program.

In a telehealth appointment, a patient can speak to a psychiatrist via their home computer or smartphone. They can also communicate through high-end speakers, microphones, a video monitor, and a computer on a mobile cart at a Northwell hospital or clinic, said Colleen Lyons, chief information officer for the Manhattan region of Northwell.  

“Telehealth gives a psychiatrist the ability to take care of more patients from one place,” said Lyons.

Lyons said the measures also ensure the safety of the physician and the patient during the pandemic. 

Northwell introduced telehealth services in 2014 and last upgraded its audio and video capabilities in 2019. It typically improves its software and devices every three to five years. 

“It’s a matter of balancing the cost of new devices and/or software with the value of a better experience for the patient,” said Lyons. 

The pandemic has motivated more insurers to compensate Northwell for telepsychiatry appointments, said Dr. Manish Sapra, executive director of the Behavioral Health Service Line at Northwell. The Behavioral Health Service Line oversees all mental health services provided at Northwell Health. 

Sapra said certain patients, like young children and older adults, prefer in-person services. 

“That’s how we learn where we need to adapt. In addition, the pandemic has been a lesson in disaster psychiatry. One reason telepsychiatry is working is because as the pandemic progresses, we are training our therapists and clinicians. We teach them to specifically address stressors related to the pandemic and concerns people may be experiencing, such as housing and food insecurity,” said Sapra.