One in five adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in any given year. Of these, millions go undiagnosed and/or untreated because of limiting factors like insurance coverage, accessibility, and stigma, despite mental health’s irrefutable link to physical health and overall wellbeing. With so much of America burdened by chronic disease, mental health treatment presents enormous untapped opportunities for healthcare players across the private and public spheres.

Walgreens is helping lead the way, becoming the first of its major competitors like CVS Health or Rite Aid to roll out strategies to improve patient mental health. The plans call for additional online resources, the integration of a new behavioral telehealth solution into Walgreens’ existing collaboration with MDLIVE, and opportunities for its pharmacists and midlevel providers to improve treatment and identification of common ailments like depression and anxiety.

Altogether, Walgreens’s new collaboration with Mental Health America (a nonprofit dedicated to mental health support, recovery and advocacy) has a goal to complete 3 million online mental health screenings by the end of 2017.

Walgreens’ plans do not include staffing their clinics with certified mental health professionals, a strategy undertaken by innovative walk-in clinic and insurance hybrid Zoom+ in the Pacific Northwest. Zoom+ is staffed with mental health specialists and offers same-day appointments for anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, ADHD/ADD, and bipolar disorder. Certain ailments, like substance abuse and eating disorders, fall under the “behavioral health” scope and are referred out to specialists.

While Zoom+ is not technically a retail clinic, its numerous locations, same-day appointments and transparent care model could pave the way for national chains like Walgreens and CVS to integrate mental health professionals at least in a few test markets, similar to how The Little Clinic added dieticians in four markets in March 2016.

The unmet demand for mental health services is certainly there: a 2016 report from Mental Health America reports that 57 percent of adults with mental illness receive no treatment, with some states like Hawaii and Nevada having numbers as high as 70 percent (using 2012-2013 data). On 13 measures of care including adults who did not receive treatment and availability of mental health professionals, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Washington ranked the lowest.

Of these five lowest-ranking states and their corresponding major markets, Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona present the greatest opportunity for mental health integration given their comparatively higher prevalence of CVS/minuteclinics, Walgreens Healthcare Clinics, and The Little Clinics.

If accessibility is a true barrier to treatment, walk-in clinics sprinkled throughout a city staffed with certified mental health professionals could improve treatment and reduce associated incidence of chronic disease. If lack of insurance is a true barrier to treatment, then providing individuals with flat, up-front prices could encourage those most in-need of services to utilize them. And if stigma is a true barrier to treatment, then major retail clinics—with 1,600+ locations in 87 of the nation’s key markets—could offer individuals a more discreet, less daunting opportunity to interact with a mental health professional. After all, seeking treatment for anxiety or depression may seem a little less somber when it’s on the same list as bananas and paper towels.

Of course, these points hold true for telemedicine, as well, and retail clinics may increasingly employ Walgreens’ strategy of partnering with a telehealth company like Breakthrough, MDLIVE’s behavioral health company, to offer patient access to state-licensed therapists and psychiatrists nationwide. These online therapy sessions also offer convenience, transparency, and discretion.

If retail clinics don’t staff therapists on-site or offer telemedicine, they could at least follow in Walgreens’ footsteps and integrate patient screenings into the care continuum via online screenings or in-store kiosks, similar to walk-in clinic QCare in Pennsylvania, which opened the nation’s first automated behavioral health screening kiosk in 2014.

As retail clinics evolve to meet consumer demand for chronic disease management, telemedicine, preventive medicine, and easy access to prescription drugs, the identification and treatment of mental and behavioral health is a logical next step. Seamless incorporation of mental health treatment into the patient’s day, whether through online or in-person sessions during a trip to the store, could shed light on its necessity and pull mental illness from the sidelines of health and wellbeing. Destigmatizing mental illness and placing it on a level playing field with the common cold could empower individuals to seek treatment they had long avoided, which could in turn save dollars, and lives.

Follow @mlavoneDRG for convenient care trends & developments, @NicoleWitDRG for behavioral/mental health trends & developments, and @ChrisSilvaDRG for telemedicine and health IT trends & developments

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