'Telehealth agencies have become our competition,' behavioral health exec says

The behavioral health industry is projected by many to see rapid growth over the next few years, but the path isn't free of obstacles.

Joanne Pietro, RN, assistant vice president for New York City-based Richmond University Medical Center's psychiatry and behavioral science department, spoke with Becker's about what could hold the industry back from reaching its potential.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for clarity and length.

Q: Behavioral health as an industry is projected to have a ton of growth over the next few years. What obstacles or challenges do you see that could jeopardize that? 

Joanne Pietro: We are currently seeing an increased need for inpatient and outpatient mental health services as we continue to recover from the pandemic. It has had a significant effect on our local economy, which is evidenced by empty storefronts, restaurant closings, and rising prices in rents (over 10% ) and food, making it difficult for people to live independently. 

This, in turn, has changed the economic landscape for many families who are now experiencing housing issues and food insecurity, which has had an effect on the emotional well-being of many families, in particular youth. There is a demand for increase in services for the adult population as well. I would expect the need for all behavioral health services to continue to grow as the economy and communities continue to experience changes which have a large effect on all vulnerable populations. 

One of the challenges which we will continue to face is related to attracting clinicians and providers in hospital based and community based settings, as telehealth agencies have become our competition. The hospitals have experienced a loss of clinical staff post-pandemic from which many have not recovered. 

It is a challenge to recruit staff in general psychiatry as well as subspecialties such as addiction psychiatry and child/adolescent psychiatry. There are new choices and employment opportunities being offered by many programs such as hybrid schedules (telehealth and in-person sessions), or strictly telehealth work (from home), which changes the traditional behavioral health work environment. 

This also raises questions about who is appropriate for telehealth services, how often should in-person sessions be scheduled, and how do we address vulnerable clients who need to be seen in person, but will only allow telehealth sessions.

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