Technology and COVID-19 are center stage at State of Reform

By Regence
January 14, 2021
State of Reform 2021

Above: Dr. Jim Polo of Regence (upper right) discusses behavioral health at this month’s State of Reform conference, along with Tom Sebastian of Compass Health (upper left); Washington State Sen. Manka Dhingra (lower left); and Dr. Sasha Waring of Molina Healthcare (lower right).

The COVID-19 pandemic is the public health challenge of our lifetimes, so it’s no surprise that the coronavirus permeated just about every corner of the Washington State of Reform Health Policy Conference this month. 

Hundreds of Northwest health industry leaders gathered virtually over two days to discuss such topics as innovations spawned during the pandemic, how COVID-19 is speeding up vaccine science, and the lessons we can all learn in leadership from a rocky 2020.

Dr. Jim Polo, Regence’s Executive Medical Director for Behavioral Health, and Dr. Drew Oliveira, Regence’s Senior Executive Medical Director, participated in panel discussions on how the pandemic is impacting behavioral health and telehealth, respectively.

In Washington, mental health providers are seeing a large increase in patients in the last year. The state Department of Health estimates that 30-to-60 percent of Washington residents will experience depression as a result of the pandemic.

Dr. Polo said patients, wary of in-person contact during the pandemic, are increasingly using telehealth to receive behavioral health care. They aren’t seeing a decline in the quality of care, and for many, their access to care is going up.

Mobile solutions like myStrength allow patients to address their mental health needs without a doctor visit, Dr. Polo said. Technology at their fingertips is helping patients “get engaged in their own health care” and focus on their day-to-day well-being.

Dr. Polo said the prevalence of serious mental illness is not expected to go up after the pandemic, but some people will have PTSD and depression as they deal with the emotional impact. The stigma associated with behavioral health conditions "needs to be combated so people will come forward" and get treated, he said.

Over the last decade, telehealth has been widely available but utilization by patients has been low, Dr. Oliveira said in his panel. Because of the pandemic, that is no longer the case. At Regence, for example, health plan members have increased their use of telehealth by 5,000 percent since the pandemic began.

Telehealth can help primary care physicians by allowing them to spend more time with patients who choose to come into the office, Dr. Oliveira said. Many chronic conditions can be well monitored through technology. And so much untapped potential still exists. “There are a lot of places where we can expand on telehealth, better integrate (into overall care), and improve quality,” Dr. Oliveira said.