Behavioral health, access to health care and prevention are the three most pressing health care needs in Central Pennsylvania in the post-pandemic world.
Tina Nixon, vice president, Mission, Effectiveness and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, UPMC in Central Pennsylvania, said a health needs assessment outlined what people are facing after being homebound and, in many cases, isolated since the pandemic hit in 2020.
The assessment, which looks at the needs for 2022 through 2025, shows an increase in the need for behavioral health due to mental health issues and addiction.
The study also showed there are barriers to people seeking care as they try to navigate the health care system, and a lack of awareness around programs that offer preventative care.
The UPMC study, conducted every three years, surveyed community stakeholders, patients, community leaders, physicians, the faith community, and anyone using UPMC services, Nixon said.
“We need to improve access to and awareness of mental health services,” she said. The main issues – transportation and a shortage of providers.
“We were able to quickly move to telehealth during COVID so we can offer that platform,” she said. “But there is still a waiting list.”
A state report, conducted by the Wolf Administration, released last week, also showed a need for increased mental health services.
A Behavioral Health Commission for Adult Behavioral Health, established by Act 54 of 2022, which made $100 million in one-time American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding available to support adult behavioral health needs, is charting a path for investments, said Acting Human Services Secretary Meg Snead.
Nixon said the UPMC survey showed the lack of mental health providers is partially because many people changed careers during the pandemic.
The state commission, seeing similar statistics, recommends $37 million should be directed to recruitment and retention initiatives to attract qualified professionals and assist those who do this work, so they are not overly stressed and burning out.
Nixon said UPMC is actively recruiting, letting people know the opportunities that exist both in person and via telehealth. Recruitment teams are reaching into the schools, as early as middle school, to promote the vocation, she said.
“We are not alone. All the (health care) systems in Central Pennsylvania are experiencing this, so the impact is great,” Nixon said. “We have to go above and beyond to attract and retain providers.”
While the state and UPMC, along with others in the field, are looking to recruit providers, Nixon said the demand for services needs to be addressed now. Specifically, she said, the UPMC survey shows a spike in demand from teens and African-Amercian males.
“There has been an overall increase in all populations,” she added, “stemming from isolation and adjustments. The pandemic created the inability to interact with friends and a loss of employment.”
In addition, “People don’t know how to find the resources they need so we have to bring awareness to what providers are available,” she said.
To that end, UPMC is creating a “one-stop shop” by imbedding specialists in primary care facilities and community health clinics.
Providing that service has helped, but Nixon said many people have difficulty getting to the facilities due to lack of transportation, especially in rural areas.
The health system has a mobile unit that travels to those areas offering medical assistance and addiction services. Nixon said they also have coordinated care teams that visit the homebound and those recently released from the hospital.
“Our visit teams provide education, medication and safety checks,” she said. “They also provide a bridge between the time a patient is released from the hospital until their follow-up visit with the doctor,” providing wound care, medication checks and education.
Education, she said, runs the gamut from teaching people to monitor their blood pressure to teaching people how to use phones, computers or tablets for telehealth visits.
“People didn’t go to the doctor during COVID and now that they are seeking care, many are sicker than they would have been,” Nixon said.
“We need to look at ways to address the barriers and we can’t do that alone,” she said. “We have to work with other community organizations to provide all the services.”
Those services include prevention. “We want to promote wellness by looking at health related social needs,” she said.
The health system offers community-based health programs for blood pressure and diabetes care and exercise programs with instructors that look like the population they are working with.
Nixon said the programs are not only informative, but they create connection, reducing the feeling of isolation.
“This is not a one-size fits all issue,” Nixon said. “We need to meet people where they are and provide the services necessary to get them the help they need.”