Behavioral Health News, Spring 2021
By Isobelle Surface
Senior Vice President, Director of Communications
Putting advanced technology to work for us at Odyssey House was already underway before COVID-19 disrupted our work and personal lives, and forced us to change how we interact with each other. We have consistently invested in ways to make our administrative and program management tasks more efficient with remote meetings, online services, and cloud-based data management systems.
But what changed dramatically, in a year of so many unforeseen challenges, were rapid transitions of selected client services from in-person to virtual interactions and administrative functions.
Our ability to quickly set up remote counseling, medical and court appointments, and other previously in-person-only services made it possible for clients to progress in treatment while following public health directives on face coverings, physical distancing, and limiting exposure to others. And, of course, what worked to keep clients safe also protected our workforce.
When we implemented coronavirus containment measures such as social distancing and reducing group sizes while continuing to provide essential services to clients, the role of virtual care has expanded within the residential, outpatient, and housing programs.
Residential Treatment Adopts Technology
As the information technology staff (IT) worked in the background to provide remote technology, the program and housing staff had to adapt quickly to the demands for infection control. This was an especially urgent need in residential programs and supportive housing programs, where hundreds of clients and tenants now had to be kept safe from a highly contagious virus while living in congregate living conditions.
For Jeremy King, Senior Manager, Director of OASAS Residential Programs, this meant incorporating telehealth into a treatment regime based on in-person peer support and group engagement. Mr. King explained this was particularly helpful for individuals new to treatment and not ready to leave the program unsupervised for extended periods.
“Telehealth technology allowed clients, in instances where medically appropriate, to receive primary and specialty medical care, including psychiatric care and medication management, in the safety of the treatment program and without having to travel to and from appointments.”
In circumstances where court-mandated child visits are in place, Mr. King believes a responsible middle ground may be facilitating these visits remotely while the mother stabilizes in her recovery process.
“We use telehealth technology to facilitate Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) conferences with judges, preventive workers, case managers, lawyers, and family advocates all present in the same digital space, which allows our clients to attend conferences without leaving the program.
“In the past, we wrote letters advocating for the rights of our clients, but secure virtual platforms allow us to advocate for client’s parental rights and needs in real-time and to a live audience – an advance that clients have reviewed positively,” added Mr. King.
For individuals co-enrolled in opioid treatment programs while also enrolled in residential settings, telehealth technology helped clients receive individual counseling and medication management services without traveling to their Opioid Treatment Program (OTP). According to Mr. King, reducing time spent outside the treatment center is beneficial to a population that is at high risk for relapse and overdose.
Mr. King recognizes there are some drawbacks to using technology in a therapeutic setting. One example he gives is in the Family Center, where the personal connection a child and a mother foster while physically being together is a vital, tactile experience that cannot be replaced by technology. He believes the benefits, including enrolling clients in virtual adult basic education classes and vocational training, enhance essential residential services.
Outpatient Services Onboard with Telehealth
The impact of COVID-19 on outpatient services was immediate. Though some services, such as managing the medication-assisted treatment program (MAT), needed to remain on-site, the bulk of individual and group treatment sessions transitioned to online and telehealth services. Not knowing how long the health crisis would last, the program and administrative teams moved quickly to ensure client services suffered minimal disruptions and the clients stayed connected to their familiar support systems, which included 24/7 access to a crisis telephone hotline.
But the transition was not as smooth for those of our clients who do not have access to basic technology – a cell phone or Wi-Fi service. For these clients, thanks to a grant-funded through Columbia University School of Business, we were able to provide a low-cost data plan and a cell phone that made it possible for isolated clients to connect with their counselors and recovery network.
According to Mary Callahan, Senior Director of Outpatient Services, the effort paid off – telehealth services are proving to be a hit with the clients. “Our daily numbers are better than we expected. The clients are really latching onto this as a resource.”
Supportive housing at Odyssey House ranges from transitional housing with on-site counseling and medication management services, to scattered-site independent housing. Integration of technology within these services prior to COVID-19 focused on managing tenants’ entitlements, funder reporting requirements, and staff assignments.
For Janice Glenn-Slaughter, VP, Director of Mental Health & Housing Services, the impact of COVID-19 brought home the essential role on-site staffing has in supportive housing. “The majority of our tenants live alone and the challenges they face living with mental and physical health disorders require hands-on support. COVID-19 presented a real threat to their lives.
“Key for their survival,” she added, “was keeping our essential employees safe with personal protective resources and equipping them with access to online services so they could work remotely as appropriate.
“Nothing will replace the need for in-person care, but extending what we can do for our tenants with technology gives us – and them – flexibility.”
Tech Investments Pay Off
For several years, we invested in digital client and administrative management systems. With data and administration functions already secured on the cloud, our priority over the past year was clear: ensure staff could access these systems remotely.
While essential program staff worked on maintaining contact with clients, reassuring them the recovery services they rely on will continue, Renas Tili, Director of Information Systems and Technology, worked behind the scenes to ensure each staff member was quickly set up for remote work. He provided employees with a virtual private network (VPN), equipped them with remote desktop services (RDS), and installed high-level security protocols.
According to Jeff Savoy, VP, Director of Clinical Support Services, while there have been some barriers to facilitating remote services, such as ensuring the treatment experience is not distorted by technology; complying with federal and state confidentiality and reporting guidelines; and training staff in providing virtual treatment, he sees “the flexibility and connectivity that technology provides for patient-centered care paying off and continuing as we pivot from this public health crisis.”
As a human services organization, our commitment is ensuring we provide all our clients with as many tools as possible to help them engage in life-changing services, equip our staff with the resources they need to succeed in their roles, and prepare as best we can for future challenges.