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Creating a Competitive Advantage in the Telehealth Marketplace

It was not so long ago that meeting with a client over the phone or online was a niche practice, often reserved for clients on vacation or located in rural areas. With the rise of Covid-19, the use of telehealth quickly became a common practice.  Now that more clinicians and clients are willing to go back into the office for treatment, many practitioners are asking themselves, “Where does that leave telehealth?”

A published study showed that over a third of patients (38%) continued to receive care via telehealth this year.  Although this is a drop from 48% of patients who preferred telehealth in 2020, the number of clients seeking telehealth services is still significant (Heilmeier, 2022).  When given a choice between an in-person or a video visit for a non-emergency health issue, a significant number of participants stated a preference for in-person care (Predmore, 2021).

The Telehealth Giants

With the necessity for telehealth mental health care during the pandemic, several large telehealth corporate giants emerged.  Some well-recognized organizations rose to the top of search engines including BetterHelp, TalkSpace, and LifeStance. Between celebrity endorsements, search engine optimization, and paid advertising on social media platforms, these organizations became inescapable.  Their promise is simple:  quick and easy access to practitioners who accept insurance. The unofficial phrase arose, “Uber for mental health care.”  For many potential clients who felt overwhelmed by the prospect of finding a therapist, this came with a certain level of appeal. 

With the immense amount of funding, advertising, and brand recognition these telehealth corporations have, do private practice clinicians and group practices have a fighting chance against these organizations?  I would answer with an empathic, “Yes!”  In fact, there are ways in which your practice can have a competitive advantage.

How Your Private or Group Practices Can Compete

Insurance Paneling

The first step in understanding how smaller agencies can compete with these telehealth corporations is to look at what these giants are doing right and incorporate it into smaller practices.  A large barrier to many Americans seeking mental health care is financial.  If you have been working in the mental health space for long, you probably have an understanding of the limited supply of mental health workers, especially those who are paneled with insurance providers.  Understanding your options for insurance paneling is essential for making informed decisions about how to attract a variety of clients.  If insurance paneling does not make sense for your practice, there is the option of creating a sliding scale for clients who cannot afford full price.

Questions to ask about your practice:

Do I want to appeal to a wide socioeconomic client range?

If the answer is yes, what insurance panels are most used within my state?

Ease of Access

As clinicians, we often thank our clients for taking the brave step of reaching out for help.  We know it takes vulnerability, time, and often finances to get mental health support.  It is understandable that so many are drawn to big organizations where getting an appointment is streamlined.  As practitioners in smaller practices, we need to ask ourselves what are the logistical barriers to a client reaching out to us. For instance, clients with anxiety might have increased discomfort with making the first phone call but would feel more at ease to reach out via email or website-linked forms.  For those who have not been in treatment before, being able to see the faces and profiles of practitioners can be helpful in preparing clients to know what to expect.

Questions to ask about your practice:

How much time and energy does it take for a potential client to go from thinking about counseling to having their first session scheduled?

Are there ways I can leverage technology, such as email, website forms, or direct link scheduling to make the process easier?

Do I have a profile online that is welcoming and can help new clients know what to expect when working with me?

In-Person and Virtual Options

As the research above showed, telehealth continues to be an ongoing option for health care services.  However, with increased preference for in-person treatment, smaller practices have a definitive advantage over telehealth conglomerates, as these smaller practices often can provide both in-person and telehealth options. “Physical facilities are still at the center of the healthcare ecosystem,” said Jay Johnson, U.S. Practice Leader, JLL Healthcare. (Heilmeier, 2022)

Consistency in Care

Mental health care is unique in many ways.  The connection and rapport with a client plays a much larger role in positive outcomes than most other medical practices. Therefore, frequent changes in practitioners can drive clients away from working long-term with a practice.  Due to below-average compensation models in many of the large online mental health platforms, clinician turnover is frequent.  This gives private and group practices that have appropriate compensation and therefore much less clinician turnover, a potentially big advantage in the market.

Questions to ask about your practice:

Specifically for group practices: Is there high turnover in the practice?  If so, why is turnover frequent and how can the practice support and encourage clinicians to stay?

Clinical Specialty

One size does not fit all when it comes to mental health treatment. Although companies such as LifeStance, TalkSpace, and BetterHelp are well known, they are not well known for being specialized.  When clients are coming in with particular needs that require a specialist, they often seek out individuals or groups that advertise treating their diagnoses. When advertising your practice, be sure to make clear what sets you apart. If you serve a niche population or have training in a specific type of therapy (CBT,ERP, DBT, Etc.) make it known.

Questions to ask about your practice:

What sets me/my practice apart clinically?

Does my practice work with a niche population? If yes, is this being clearly advertised?

Do I have training in a particular modality that will be in demand for a certain diagnosis? Am I advertising this appropriately?

Referral Network

When it comes to referring clients out, most practitioners want to give clients referrals to individuals or practices they trust. I have yet to meet a practitioner who would refer a client to an online counseling giant for this very reason. Referrals are one of the most advantageous ways to not only get clients, but also to get clients who are a good fit.  Do not underestimate the importance of networking.

Questions to ask about your practice:

Who knows about my practice?

Who are the key players in my area who will give referrals?  Primary Care Doctors?  Other Mental Health professionals?  Inpatient units?

What networking opportunities are available to me to increase my network?

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Expand Your Practice with Telehealth

Expand Your Practice with Telehealth