The Transition to Telehealth Due to COVID-19 Ensured Patients with Depression Received Quality Care

Mark Hirschhorn
4 min readApr 28, 2023

A new study has found that the dramatic shift from in-person visits to telehealth care following the COVID-19 outbreak did not adversely impact the quality of care for patients with depression and even resulted in improvements in some areas.

The report is one of 10 studies that examine the impact of telehealth, which appeared in Virtual Visits, a special supplement sponsored by Kaiser Permanente (KP) included in the journal Medical Care.

According to the report’s authors, it was possible to swiftly transition to virtual mental health care services without compromising the quality of the care provided to patients.

Studies on the Implementation of Telemedicine in the Healthcare System

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, there was a rapid transition from in-person consultations to virtual telehealth in healthcare systems across the country. While many healthcare providers had already begun slowly increasing their telehealth capacities, the sudden switch to virtual telehealth visits brought about by the pandemic could have disrupted the level of care provided with negative patient outcomes, particularly for vulnerable patients.

The studies published in the Virtual Visits supplemental issue of Medical Care assessed how the transition to telemedicine affected the quality of care patients received, as well as how they utilized telehealth services and what their perception and overall experience was of the telehealth care they received.

Seven studies included in the supplement assessed the implementation of telehealth within three regions of the KP healthcare system, looking at trends in how telemedicine is utilized and comparing the effectiveness of telehealth versus in-person visits for treating conditions such as neck and back pain, urinary tract infections, and depression.

Other studies focused on the level of care received by vulnerable populations such as Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries and patients who were treated in community health centers. The goal was to examine the role telemedicine played in the quality of care provided to diabetes patients and ensuring the continuation of primary care during the pandemic.

The Role of Telehealth in Treating Patients with Major Depression

In the study titled, “Health-care–Related Practices in Virtual Behavioral Health Treatment for Major Depression Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” researchers assessed how the transition to telehealth visits in the KP healthcare system affected the level of care patients with depression received. For the study, led by Nancy Weinfield of the KP Mid-Atlantic Permanente Research Institute, researchers followed the progress of 29,000 patients with major depression by analyzing data gleaned from the electronic health records following their first telehealth follow-up mental health visit.

The analysis revealed that in two of the three KP regions assessed, the number of prescriptions for antidepressant medications dropped slightly but significantly during the pandemic’s peak transition to telehealth care (April to June 2020). However, the demand for antidepressant medication increased to pre-pandemic levels during the summer of 2020. The authors found that the prescription fulfillment rate remained the same over the three periods (pre-pandemic period, peak pandemic period, and recovery period).

The study also found that in all three regions monitored, there was a significant increase in the number of patients who completed depression symptom screening tests during the peak pandemic period, and this trend continued during the recovery period. According to the authors, this “improved adherence to measurement-based care practices in virtual visits [signals] a potential new capacity for virtual healthcare delivery.”

Compared to other health conditions evaluated in other KP studies, this study shows that telehealth continued to be the predominant channel of delivering mental health care for major depression during the pandemic recovery period.

According to the researchers, the fact that patients continue to utilize telehealth services rather than returning to in-person visits for the delivery of mental health care within the three KP regions studied is a good indication that telehealth visits have proven beneficial to both patients and their healthcare providers.

The researchers conclude that the study shows that the rapid transition to virtual mental health care was possible without compromising the quality of care patients received.

The full study, Health-care–Related Practices in Virtual Behavioral Health Treatment for Major Depression Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic, can be viewed for free as an open-access article on the Medical Care journal’s website. Medical Care is the official journal of the Medical Care Section of the American Public Health Association. It publishes original, peer-reviewed scientific research papers covering recent developments in health care and is rated as one of the top 10 journals covering healthcare administration and delivery of healthcare services. Medical Care also publishes special supplementary issues, such as Virtual Visits, which looks at the provision of healthcare services via telemedicine.

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Mark Hirschhorn

Since the 1980s, Mark Hirschhorn has been working in senior management positions at top global firms.