When Sue W’s mother died in 2018, she struggled terribly. She was already seeing a psychotherapist and was taking duloxetine, prescribed by her primary care physician. But her grief was profound, and her depression became paralyzing. She needed to see a psychiatrist, and there were many available in or near her hometown, a Connecticut suburb of New York City, but neither Sue, her therapist, nor her primary care doctor could find a psychiatrist who participated with her insurance. Finally, she was given the name of a psychiatrist in Manhattan who practiced online, and she made an appointment on the Skypiatrist (a telepsychiatry group in 2016) website.
“I hesitated about it at first,” Sue said. “The doctor was nice, and I liked the convenience. Appointments were 15 minutes long, although the first session was longer. He focused on the medications, which was okay because I already have a therapist. And it was really easy. I made appointments on their website and I saw the doctor through the same site, and I really liked that I could send him messages.” The psychiatrist was responsive when Sue had trouble coming off duloxetine, and he gave her instructions for a slower taper. The treatment was affordable and accessible, and she got better.
Psychiatry has a problem: The demand for services is far greater than what we can accommodate. This has opened a door for both for nonphysician prescribers and online companies to step in and fill a need that local, office-based psychiatrists can’t meet. When you also consider that many private practice psychiatrists do not participate with insurance panels, online companies that do accept insurance may add value, convenience, and access.
Cerebral, the largest online psychiatric service in the country, began seeing patients in January of 2020, offering medications and psychotherapy. They participate with a number of commercial insurers, and this varies by state, but not with Medicaid or Medicare. Patients pay a monthly fee, and an initial 30-minute medication evaluation session is conducted, often with a nurse practitioner. They advertise wait times of less than 7 days.
Another company, Done, offers treatment specifically for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They don’t accept insurance for appointments; patients must submit their own claims for reimbursement. Their pricing structure involves a fee of $199 for the first month, then $79 a month thereafter, which does not include medications. Hims — another online company — targets men with a variety of health issues, including mental health problems.
Some of these internet companies have been in the news recently for concerns related to quality of care and prescribing practices. A The Wall Street Journal article of March 26, 2022 quoted clinicians who had previously worked for Cerebral and Done who left because they felt pressured to see patients quickly and to prescribe stimulants. Not all of the prescribers were unhappy, however. “Yina Cruz-Harris, a nurse practitioner at Done who has a doctorate in nursing practice, said that she manages 2,300 patients with ADHD for Done. Virtually all are on stimulants,” she said. Dr Cruz-Harris said she shes each patient’s monthly prescription from her New Jersey home, based mostly on online forms filled out renew by the patients. She’s fast, doing two renewals per minute, and Done pays her almost $10 per patient, working out to around $20,000 in monthly earnings.
In May, the Department of Justice began looking into Cerebral’s practices around controlled substances and more recently, Cerebral has been in the news for complaints from patients that they have been unable to reach their prescribers when problems arise. Some pharmacy chains have refused to fill prescriptions for controlled medications from online telehealth providers, and some online providers, including Cerebral, are no longer prescribing controlled substances. A front-page The Wall Street Journal article on August 19, 2022 told the story of a man with a history of addiction who was prescribed stimulants after a brief appointment with a prescriber at Done. Family and friends in his sober house believe that the stimulants triggered a relapse, and he died of an opioid overdose.
During the early days of the pandemic, nonemergency psychiatric care was shut down and we all became virtual psychiatrists. Many of us saw new patients and prescribed controlled medications to people we had never met in real life.
“John Brown,” MD, PhD, spoke with me with the condition that I don’t use his real name or the name of the practice he left. He was hired by a traditional group practice with a multidisciplinary staff and several offices in his state. Most of the clinicians worked part-time and were contractual employees, and Brown was hired to develop a specialty service. He soon learned that the practice —which participates with a number of insurance plans — was not financially stable, and it was acquired by an investment firm with no medical experience.
“They wanted everyone to work 40-hour weeks and see 14 patients a day, including three to four new patients, and suddenly everyone was overextended and exhausted. Overnight, most of the therapists left, and they hired nurse practitioners to replace many of the psychiatrists. People weren’t getting good care.” While this was not a telepsychiatry startup, it was a corporate takeover of a traditional practice that was unable to remain financially solvent while participating with insurance panels.
Like Sue W, Elizabeth K struggled to get treatment for ADHD even before the pandemic.
“I work multiple part-time jobs, don’t own a car, and don’t have insurance. Before telehealth became available, it was difficult and discouraging for me to maintain consistent treatment. It took me months to get initial appointments with a doctor and I live in one of the largest cities in the country.” She was pleased with the care she received by Done.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the authenticity and thoroughness of my first telehealth provider,” Elizabeth noted. She remembered and considered more about me, my medical history, and details of my personal life than nearly every psychiatric doctor I’ve ever seen. They informed me of the long-term effects of medications and the importance of routine cardiovascular check-ups. Also, they wouldn’t prescribe more than 5 mg of Adderall (even though I had been prescribed 30-90 mg a day for most of my life) until I completed a medical check-up with blood pressure and blood test results.”
Corporate telepsychiatry may fill an important void and provide care to many people who have been unable to access traditional treatment. Something, however, has to account for the fact that care is more affordable through startups than through traditional psychiatric practices. Startups have expensive technologic and infrastructure costs and added layers of administration. This translates to either higher volumes with shorter appointments, less compensation for prescribers, or both. How this will affect the future of psychiatric care remains to be seen.
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