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TriWest turns to online platform for behavioral health

February 25, 2010
by David Raths
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Can virtual care help the military overcome stigma and accessibility issues?

The results of several research studies have indicated that a strong stigma exists in the military related to seeking behavioral health treatment. Geographic distance and scheduling difficulties can also limit treatment options. Phoenix-based TriWest Healthcare Alliance, which provides health insurance to military families in 21 states, is engaged in a project in Hawaii to evaluate whether online care can overcome those barriers.

Built on the web-based, on-demand Online Care platform from a company called American Well, the service allows members of the military to engage in online conversations with behavioral health providers, including social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists, without having to wait to schedule appointments.

“We think this live, informed interaction is going to change behavioral healthcare,” said Dr. Roy Schoenberg, MD, CEO of Boston-based American Well, which was recently named one of the most innovative companies in healthcare by Fast Company magazine.

Schoenberg explained that his company, which also has partnerships with insurers and providers to offer urgent care online, saw three low-hanging pieces of fruit in its application to behavioral health:

1. The ability to eliminate some of the geographic disparities in the availability of clinicians. In Hawaii, for instance, providers are clustered in Honolulu, but there are very few on the Big Island. Online consultations eliminate that problem of distribution.

2. There is a stigma about seeking behavioral healthcare that is especially strong in the military. If soldiers and their families use their home computers to make an appointment and see a clinician, no one else needs to know about it.

3. Behavioral health services are time-sensitive. Post-traumatic stress disorder and related disorders such as sleep and eating disorders, anxiety, and self-esteem problems require immediate attention. “If you wake up in a sweat at 3 a.m. having a panic attack, an appointment in three months isn’t going to cut it,” Schoenberg said. “Behavioral health providers tell us there is a diminishing return on therapy. As time goes by, it gets more difficult to deal with these problems.”

TriWest officials did not respond to requests for interviews about the program, but in a prepared statement David J. McIntyre Jr., president and CEO of TriWest, said that the members of our armed forces and their families deserve our full support in light of the sacrifices they have made. "The introduction of online care has the potential to make behavioral health more convenient and accessible to these outstanding men and women; accessibility improves prevention and positively impacts outcomes."

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