Canada’s mental-health care system ripe for a digital makeover

With the coronavirus pandemic expected to double the demand for mental-health service, digital technology is opening the door to a new normal, with shorter wait times for services, more personalized treatment options and improved integration between public and private providers.

Over the past year, there’s been a rapid acceleration of the need for digital programming to fill gaps in care for mental health, said Joe Blomeley, executive vice-president of individual, public sector and mental health at Green Shield Canada, during a session at Benefits Canada’s 2020 Mental Heath Summit.

Even before the pandemic hit, the insurer had started developing a robust internet-based cognitive behaviour therapy program with the idea that it should be a more integral part of what an employer, a mental-health provider or a government offers to their stakeholder populations.

Read: Meeting the growing need for mental health with virtual care

“We saw a lot of potential,” he said, describing iCBT as a digital form of structured therapy that makes care more affordable, allows a greater level of tracking and increases the flexibility of the treatment pathway. Internet-based CBT is particularly effective for patients with depression and anxiety, he noted.

“We initially intended to study a specific niche area of digital mental-health delivery and take a more methodical approach over time figuring out how to build a scaled up ecosystem. But that has changed quite a bit because of COVID-19. What we were expecting in 2027 is here today and, as a result, we are rethinking how we’re making mental-health services available and how we are connecting those services.”

A GSC survey from earlier in 2020 found plan sponsors and advisors are clear on their priorities. Nearly two-thirds of respondents indicated it’s important or very important to offer digital solutions to employees and 55 per cent of plan sponsors said they plan to invest more in digital health in the next three years.

And yet, although plan sponsors and advisors view digital and virtual care as their most important focus going forward, 89 per cent of respondents said they have limited to no experience on evaluating the quality and efficacy of digital health applications and platforms. With that in mind — and as employee demand for virtual services rises — there’s a role for carriers, providers and others to help employers think through which solutions work and which don’t, said Blomeley.

Read: A look at how internet-based CBT programs are evolving

GSC has offered iCBT to its employees for the past 18 months and has seen consistently strong outcomes, with nearly 1,000 people going through the platform so far. “This cost-effective and successful treatment has moved people with severe to moderate symptoms to mild and subclinical symptoms,” he said.

“Satisfaction levels are at 80 per cent and we are starting to get data on the impact of iCBT on disability programs as well. It has been effective within GSC and we want to scale up. I’m hoping, based on the outcomes we’re seeing, that any debate about whether iCBT works is being put to bed.”

Read more coverage of the 2020 Mental Health Summit.