Home-Based Telemental Health Care Benefits Veterans

Contact: Tonya Lobbestael
Ralph H. Johnson VAMC Public Affairs Officer

Contact: Heather Woolwine
MUSC Public Affairs/ Media Relations Director

Nov 28, 2016

CHARLESTON, SC – Home-based telemental health care for depression is well received by patients and delivers as good a quality of life as in-person visits, according to the results of a clinical trial in 241 depressed elderly veterans reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry by investigators at the Medical University of South Carolina and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center (VAMC).

Depression affects 10 percent of Americans and is a leading cause of disability and mortality. And yet, only an estimated 56 percent of patients with depression seek treatment. Barriers to treatment include mobility issues (especially in the elderly), transportation costs, missed days of work, geographic isolation, and fear of the associated stigma. By overcoming some of those barriers, telemental health could improve access to care for these patients.

Leonard E. Egede, M.D., director of the MUSC Center for Health Disparities and the Allen H. Johnson Endowed Chair for General Internal Medicine and Geriatrics, led a strong collaborative team of MUSC and VAMC investigators, along with Christopher Frueh, Ph.D., director of clinical research at The Menninger Clinic and adjunct professor from Baylor College of Medicine.

“This is the largest randomized clinical trial to date examining whether differences exist in patient perceptions, satisfaction, therapeutic alliance, and quality of life between telemental health and same-room care,” Egede said.

Male and female veterans aged 58 years and older who met the criteria for major depressive disorder (DSM-IV), including Vietnam era veterans, were eligible for enrollment in the trial. All participants received eight weeks of behavioral activation therapy and were randomly assigned to telemental health or in-person counseling. Behavioral activation reflects the notion that the patient’s activity plays a role in how he or she feels and the goal of therapy is to reduce behaviors that promote depression.

Telemental health treatment sessions were delivered via in-home videoconferencing using a standard telephone line and did not require an internet connection. The 36-item Short Form Survey was used to assess quality of life and the Charleston Psychiatric Outpatient Satisfaction Scale was used to assess patient satisfaction. Scores on these scales did not differ significantly at 12-month follow-ups between veterans who received depression care via telemental heath and those who received in-person care.

Egede and colleagues had previously reported primary outcome and cost analysis results from this same trial of 241 depressed elderly veterans. In a 2015 Lancet Psychiatry article, Egede showed that telemental health care was non-inferior to same-room delivery in patients with a major depressive disorder for eliciting a treatment response. A treatment response was defined as a 50 percent decrease in depression symptoms at a 12-month follow-up appointment vs baseline and the absence of a diagnosis of major depressive disorder at a12-month follow-up. In an article published online on September 28, 2016 by the Journal of Affective Disorders, Egede showed that the overall inpatient costs as well as outpatient and pharmacy costs for treating depression increase over time in elderly veterans, regardless of whether the treatment is delivered in person or via telemental health. This increase in cost is likely a result of the rising number of visits.

In conjunction with these earlier findings that primary outcomes (i.e., treatment response) and costs for telemental health care are similar to those for in-person depression care, the report in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry that telemental health also delivers similar quality of life and patient satisfaction suggests that it is a viable alternative to in-person visits for treating elderly patients with depression.

Most of the elderly veterans enrolled in this study were male, and patients with active psychosis or dementia, a substance dependence, or suicidal ideation and clear intent were excluded from the trial. As such, the study’s findings may not be generalizable to those populations.

Simple solutions such as home-based videoconferencing that does not require an internet connection may be an effective way to address the mental health needs of rural patients, particularly elderly ones. However, not all payers currently reimburse for telemental health care for depression. Evidence that telemental heath care delivers similar treatment response, patient satisfaction, and quality of life at a similar cost as in-person clinics suggests that it may be time for that to change.

“Taken together, these three studies demonstrate that telemental health is equivalent to in-person care for depression in terms of primary outcomes, secondary outcomes and quality of life, as well as cost,” Egede said. “It is time for telemental health to take its rightful place alongside in-person counseling as a viable option for depression care, one that will remove many barriers to care.”

About MUSC

Founded in 1824 in Charleston, MUSC is the oldest medical school in the South, as well as the state’s only integrated, academic health sciences center with a unique charge to serve the state through education, research and patient care. Each year, MUSC educates and trains more than 3,000 students and more than 850 residents in six colleges: Dental Medicine, Graduate Studies, Health Professions, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy. The state’s leader in obtaining biomedical research funds, in fiscal year 2019, MUSC set a new high, bringing in more than $284 million. Find out more about our academic programs.

As the health care system of the Medical University of South Carolina, MUSC Health is dedicated to delivering the highest quality and safest patient care while educating and training generations of outstanding health care providers and leaders to serve the people of South Carolina and beyond. Patient care is provided at 14 hospitals with approximately 2,500 beds and five additional hospital locations in development, more than 350 telehealth sites and connectivity to patients’ homes, and nearly 750 care locations situated in all regions of South Carolina. In 2021, for the seventh consecutive year, U.S. News & World Report named MUSC Health the No. 1 hospital in South Carolina. Learn more about clinical patient services.

MUSC and its affiliates have collective annual budgets of $4.4 billion. The nearly 25,000 MUSC team members include world-class faculty, physicians, specialty providers and scientists who deliver groundbreaking education, research, technology and patient care.

About the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center:

Located in historic downtown Charleston, South Carolina, the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center is a tertiary care teaching hospital providing the highest level quality care from cardiology to neurology to primary and mental health care for 70,000 veterans along the South Carolina and Georgia coast. The Ralph H. Johnson VA achieved a 5-Star rating according to VA’s Strategic Analytics for Improvement and Learning Value (SAIL) model. The SAIL rating ranks the Charleston VA in the top 10 percent of VA medical centers nationwide for quality of care and efficiency. The Charleston VA is also ranked in the top 10th percentile according to the Health care Effectiveness Data and Information Set (HEDIS). HEDIS is an independent review that measures performance of 90 percent of America’s health plans and facilities in both the public and private sector on dimensions of care and service. The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center is a center of excellence for robotic surgery and orthopedics, and is the first VA National Telemental Health Hub providing care for veterans across the U.S. The 149-bed hospital includes six community based outpatient clinics, a 20-bed nursing home, women’s health, and the full range of inpatient and outpatient care, including medical and surgical intensive care. The VAMC provides more than 875,000 outpatient visits and approximately 4,400 in-patient stays annually. With more than 2,500 employees, Charleston VA has an annual budget of $458 million, research funding of more than $21 million, and more than 100 principle investigators participating in approximately 300 research studies. For more information, visit Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.