Deploying technology to address America’s mental health and clinician burnout crisis

July 31, 2023
  • At the recent Aspen Ideas Health event in Colorado, Kristy Duffey, chief nursing officer of Optum Health and chief operating officer of Optum Home & Community, spoke on a panel during which she shared ways UnitedHealth Group is using technology to increase access to mental health care for patients and reduce workplace stress for clinicians. 

picture of Kristen Duffey onstage at a panel discussion for Aspen Health picture of Kristen Duffey onstage at a panel discussion for Aspen Health
The mental health crisis in America

Poor mental health can negatively affect a person’s physical health, contributing to conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and poor sleep. During the discussion, Duffey talked about the need to think about health more holistically, noting solutions cannot be one size fits all.

Video clip timestamps: 14:30-15:46

  • About 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. live with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression (CDC).
  • About one in five people aged 55 years or older experience some type of mental health concern including anxiety, depression and severe cognitive impairment. (CDC)
  • Over the past few years, behavioral care patterns have been accelerating as people increasingly feel comfortable seeking services. Since last year, the percentage of people who are accessing behavioral care has increased by double digits, according to UnitedHealth Group.

animation showing the stat of more than 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. live with a mental illness, according to the CDC.

Poor mental health can negatively affect a person’s physical health, contributing to conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and poor sleep.

Increasing access to mental health services

Optum is proactively engaging with people to help manage their health and well-being through in-person, in-home, virtual and digital clinical platforms. Duffey highlighted that last year, Optum Health conducted about 400,000 in-home assessments for people living in rural markets who otherwise might not have the ability to access care due to issues like lack of transportation. In addition, to meet increased demand for services, Optum has added tens of thousands of behavioral care professionals in recent months.

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Digital tools and technologies can provide more convenient and accessible care for those who prefer to receive it in the comfort of their homes. These tools – including virtual therapy – create broader access for:

  • People who are homebound and/or lack access to transportation.
  • Seniors, including dual and chronic special needs populations.
  • People who live in rural communities where care providers are scarce. In fact, less than one-third of Americans live in an area where there are enough mental health professionals available to meet the needs of the population (AAMC).

Optum’s HouseCalls program provides both in-home and virtual assessments. These services leverage a whole-person care approach to identify and help manage the physical, behavioral and social needs of individuals.

Of the more than 2.2 million assessments that Optum HouseCalls completed last year, nearly 80,000 of those were completed virtually (Optum fact sheet). Digital tools and platforms like telehealth are helping to create access to services patients might not otherwise have.

Optum has provided over 16,000 tablets since 2021 to qualified patients who do not have the technology to access telehealth.

Virtual visits are also being used to provide preventive psychiatric care in skilled nursing facilities. This is especially important for elderly patients who may have multiple chronic conditions, dementia or PTSD, so they do not have to leave their facility to receive the help they need, when they need it. Duffey discussed the importance of real-time access to better manage patient care, noting that telehealth and virtual visits have been key to handling issues such as medication adherence, ultimately helping to keep patients out of the emergency room.

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Burnout and workplace stress at all-time highs for clinicians

Clinician burnout is at a crisis level in the U.S. While burnout and mental health conditions can be related, they are not the same and must be addressed differently. Duffey said she feels a strong sense of responsibility for our clinicians amid high levels of burnout within the industry.

of physicians say they're burned out (Medscape)
nurses in the U.S. left the workforce over the past two years due to stress, burnout and retirement
reported the intent to leave by 2027 (American Hospital Association)

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A leading cause of clinician burnout is administrative burden. Clinicians may spend 1-2 hours every night documenting patients’ health records.

Decreasing clinician administrative burden and stress

Digital tools and technologies can allow clinicians to spend more time interacting with patients face-to-face during appointments and better enable them to work at the top of their license. These include:

  • Dictation tools and scribing tools can help reduce documentation efficiencies by capturing clinical notes at the point of care without manually entering in an electronic health record.

  • Inbox management solutions can automate prescription renewal requests for certain conditions and send patients summary information on their refill status, required labs or office visits on behalf of clinicians.

  • Tools that give clinicians critical patient data and information in their daily workflow, so they can focus on patient needs, not administrative tasks.

According to Duffey, technology must be seen as an enabler to improve care.

Video clip timestamps: 48:44-49:15

Watch the full video replay of the Aspen Ideas Health panel here.