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Innovations in Behavioral Healthcare: A Digital Path to Resilience

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the way behavioral health and other human services organizations conduct their operations. Providers have struggled with how to properly care for persons served while also ensuring their own safety. Organizations have had to contend with higher levels of turnover and difficulty onboarding and training employees. These struggles have led many organizations to embrace digital transformation and innovations in behavioral healthcare as a means of remaining agile in an ever-changing landscape.

Table of Contents:

Digital Transformation Explained

What exactly is digital transformation? According to Salesforce, one of the foremost technology companies in the world:

“Digital transformation is the process of using digital technologies to create new — or modify existing — business processes, culture, and customer experiences to meet changing business and market requirements. This reimagining of business in the digital age is digital transformation.”

For behavioral health and other human services, this often means using technology to find new and better ways to help persons served. Telehealth technology is one great example. Telehealth has enabled providers to offer care to clients no matter where they live, without the need to break social distancing best practices. Innovations such as these are sorely needed to improve access to care. Across the United States, just 45% of counties have a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker — even worse, only 30% have a child psychologist.

Other examples of digital tools include:

  • Referral trackers
  • Computerized provider order entry systems
  • Online support groups
  • Mobile phone applications
  • Virtual reality
  • Interactive Voice Response (VIR)
  • Patient portals
  • Remote patient monitoring systems
  • Telephonic signatures

By digitally transforming the provider-client interactions, organizations have been able to offer more help to more people. But digital solutions shouldn’t stop at the provider-client level. Rather, organizations need to find ways to better serve their staff. By embracing digital transformation at the organization-staff level, you can create a better culture, increase retention, and improve workflows. All of this will enable you to create a more resilient organization.

Innovations in Behavioral Healthcare and the Path to Digital Transformation

In the healthcare industry at large, organizations are beginning to understand the importance of digital transformation. In a recent study by Accenture, 81% of healthcare executives said their organizations are increasing their digital transformation efforts. The behavioral health sector is following suite. In 2020, the American Psychiatric Association noted that 85% of psychiatrists met with a majority of their patients via virtual means. What’s more, the same year saw over $600 million in venture funds raised to support the development of behavioral health solutions.

The digital transformation of your organization, however, must not be treated as a quick fix. Instead, treat it as a journey. The path to digital transformation and innovation in behavioral healthcare is well worth taking but will likely have a few bumps along the way. To chart your organization’s path, consider the following four steps outlined by Gerald C. Kane, professor at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management:

  • Determine where your organization needs to go and how ‘digitally mature’ it currently is.
  • Decide on the level of digital maturity your organization needs to reach in order to achieve its current goals.
  • Begin moving toward this digital maturity goal, making note of the wins and losses your organization accrues along the way.
  • Take time to review what went right and what went wrong; iteration is the key to success in digital transformation efforts.

By following these steps, your organization can undergo its own digital transformation, allowing you to be more agile in the face of change. In our 2021 State of Healthcare Training and Development Report, 33% of respondents told us that being adaptable to changing needs was a strength of their organization during the COVID-19 pandemic. While this is encouraging, opting for digital transformation in behavioral health settings will allow more organizations to cope with change quickly.

A Case Study of Digital Transformation in Behavioral Healthcare

Man conducting a telehealth appointment on his computerFor many years, telehealth has been leading the charge for digital transformation in healthcare. Innovative practitioners have used telecommunications technology to meet with individuals who otherwise couldn’t receive care for decades now. Beginning with telephone-based appointments, these specialists have adapted their practices to include video conferencing capabilities and other cutting-edge digital tools to expand their practice and increase the level of care offered to clients.

While there was a fair amount of telehealth adoption prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, some providers were weary of such innovations in behavioral healthcare. Several factors drove these concerns, such as licensing, Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement, and the availability of the necessary technology among marginalized communities in the United States.

Despite these reservations, the onset of the pandemic has caused the need for telehealth services to skyrocket. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the week of April 12-18, 2020, saw 1.3 million Medicaid beneficiaries use telehealth services. This constituted an 11,718% increase in telehealth use among this population in just over a month.

Clearly, digital tools give healthcare practitioners remarkable flexibility when it comes to providing care as well as the ability to remain agile when facing challenges.

The Tools Driving the Digital Transformation of Behavioral Healthcare

Despite the myriad benefits of digital tools and the successes of telehealth in the space, many organizations have yet to begin their digital transformation process. ContinuumCloud, a human capital management company, recently conducted a survey among human services professionals. Interestingly, just 55% of respondents reported that their organization uses digital tools to improve workflows, while only 53% use these tools to increase efficiency.

Unsurprisingly, respondents to the ContinuumCloud survey noted workflow automations as a sore spot in their organization’s operating model. Luckily, several technologies exist that can help human services and behavioral health organizations tackle these inefficiencies.

Learning Management Systems (LMS) and Digital Training

Effective training is an omnipresent need for human services organizations. Whether it’s meeting compliance regulations or keeping staff up to date on the latest best practices, organizations must always be thinking of the best way to provide training.

A student using an LMSWhen organizations begin with the digital transformation of their behavioral healthcare training efforts, many turn to a learning management system (LMS). These tools allow administrators to perform a variety of tasks associated with training programs and give staff flexibility in the way they receive and perform their training. While many people, regardless of the industry in which they work, understand that they need better training solutions for their organization to grow and become resilient, they nonetheless find the sheer amount of technology required to do so overwhelming.

This is one reason why an effective LMS is such a powerful driver of positive change within an organization. With an LMS, all the tools necessary for training are housed within a single piece of technology. This includes the ability to enroll your organization and staff in trainings, track data around course completions, and to communicate with staff about their training.

For these reasons, learning management systems are primed to become one of the great innovations in behavioral healthcare. So, how can your organization take advantage of an LMS? First, determine what the training needs are within your organization. The best training programs should consider the learners’ needs, so survey your staff to find out what trainings they are interested in or require for their licensure. Next, find an LMS that offers courses that not only fit these needs, but also provides the capability to grow with you as your organization becomes more digitally mature.

Data Analytics

The use of data analytics is fast on the rise in the for-profit sector, with Gartner predicting that 90% of organizations will make it a priority sooner rather than later. Human services should follow suit, as this will lead to huge innovations in behavioral healthcare. Indeed, human services professionals are actively calling for it. In the ContinuumCloud report referenced above, 68% of respondents said the ability to measure and report on a given program’s efficacy is in their organization’s plans, while 57% said their organization is looking to make more data-driven decisions.

What exactly does it mean to be data-driven? When organizations use insights gathered through data analysis to inform the way they conduct their business, they are acting in a data-driven way. The first step, then, to becoming a truly data-driven organization is deciding which data points to track. While this will be different for every organization, some examples include compliance training completions and electronic visit verification (EVV) data. By collecting and analyzing this type of data, organizations can identify gaps in their processes and find a way to better serve the needs of their staff.

The power of analytics, however, isn’t contained to this high-level view. Organizations can actively empower their staff using data. By putting data into the hands of their practitioners, organizations can enable staff to make better decisions on the ground, which will lead to a higher level of care for persons served. A great example of this is the SoonerCare Medicaid program. Using data around comorbidity factors, human services managers in Oklahoma were able to identify at-risk individuals their staff could target for interventions. Thus, not only were workflows within the organization optimized, but clients were positively impacted as well.

Electronic Health Records (EHR)

One of the great innovations in behavior healthcare, electronic health records (EHR) are paving the way for more flexible and secure provider-client interactions, while also creating a more efficient workflow for human services organizations. Using cloud computing, EHRs allow authorized providers to access patient information anywhere in real-time. This functionality alone stands as a testament to the power of digital transformation in behavioral health, as providers no longer have to shuffle through paperwork or wait for a patient’s records to arrive by mail.

EHR not only makes it easier to share a client’s information with their other healthcare providers —it also enables human services organizations to act more efficiently. By giving your staff access to a client’s medical information and history, you can reduce the amount of duplicated work (such as tests, assessments, etc.), while simultaneously empowering them to create better client-provider relations – all with one piece of technology.

EHRs give your staff the ability to deliver a higher quality of care to clients. This, in turn, will lead to great client trust in your organization.

Building Organizational Resilience Through Digital Transformation

Echoing the language often used since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Deloitte defines organizational resilience as follows:

“Resilient organizations plan and invest for disruption, and can adapt, endure, and rebound quickly in a way that enables them to not only succeed in its aftermath, but also to lead the way to a ‘better normal.’”

For behavioral health and human services organizations, a “better normal” often means greater levels of care for persons served and higher staff retention rates.

Staff empowerment is the common thread that ties together the solutions discussed in this article. Whether your organization chooses to adopt an LMS, EHR, or any other tool, the main question to ask is, “Will this help my staff solve problems?”

If yes, your staff will become better equipped to handle turbulent events and thus provide your organization with a sense of stability. The level of care you offer to your clients will remain steady or improve, you’ll improve operational efficiencies, and, as a result, your organization will be able to remain financially strong during hard times.

Paving the Way to Innovations in Behavioral Healthcare

In behavioral health and human services, two of the biggest difficulties organizations face when adopting new technologies are:

  • Staff resistance
  • Knowledge gaps around how to use these new tools

While there may be some pushback to adopting a new tool, don’t let this deter your efforts at digital transformation. Rather, provide your staff with training to help them master the technologies you adopt. People actively want to learn, but frustrations over time and other constraints of daily life can get in the way. Make sure to provide your staff with the flexibility necessary to fully understand and integrate the new technology into their daily workflow.

By doing so, you’ll be able to expand your services and better position your organization. Embracing digital transformation and other innovations in behavioral healthcare will help your organization remain resilient as challenges come and go.

Ask the Expert: How to Leverage Digital Tools in Behavioral Health

At a time of stretched resources, altered working conditions, and the evolving nature of the prolonged pandemic, digital tools present an opportunity for behavioral health providers. These tools can help expand the scope and scale of behavioral health services across key phases of mental health support, including prevention, screening, treatment, and recovery.

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