Patients benefit from UCHealth’s virtual behavioral health intensive outpatient program

The virtual group therapy model is the only hospital-based program of its kind in Colorado
April 21, 2023
Behavioral health therapy sessions are offered as part of UCHealth's virtual behavioral health intensive outpatient program, which provides help for Coloradans experiencing mental health challenges. Photo: Getty Images.
Behavioral health therapy sessions are offered as part of UCHealth’s virtual behavioral health intensive outpatient program, which provides help for Coloradans experiencing mental health challenges. Photo: Getty Images.

About half of all Americans will meet criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their life, according to Mental Health America. Access to behavioral health resources is reaching crisis levels due to rising demand and intensifying levels of depression and anxiety in the aftermath of the pandemic.

UCHealth launched the state’s first virtual behavioral health intensive outpatient program (IOP) in 2022, to improve patient access to specialized behavioral health care. The virtual IOP provides intensive treatment for Coloradans who are experiencing debilitating mental health challenges including depression, PTSD, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, substance use, or other major illnesses. The goal is to ensure vulnerable Coloradans continue to receive high-level therapy and support no matter where they live.

“We have developed services for patients based on need. Our program focuses on specific issues and less on general mental health. These specialized groups are hard to find in Colorado, and if you find one, there is generally an extensive wait list,” said Nancy Burlak, director of behavioral health at UCHealth.

The program includes virtual group therapy sessions for three hours, three times per week, for six to eight weeks. Prior to the implementation of this program, patients would be seen in private, in-person therapy. The virtual group therapy model removes barriers, such as needing to travel a long distance from home multiple times per week, and increases access to what can be life-saving treatments, especially in rural parts of the state where therapy gaps exist.

“We are supporting patients whose needs are not being met in a traditional outpatient setting, especially those who are risk for hospitalization or who are transitioning out of the hospital with debilitating mental health concerns. This program supports access to mental health services throughout Colorado,” said Mica Stone, behavioral health clinical therapist with the virtual intensive outpatient program.

For the dozens of participants that have come through the virtual IOP in the first year, none have required readmission to the hospital.

“There’s a misconception that virtual therapy isn’t as effective as in-person therapy. But, research shows it’s just as effective, if not more so, because participants have an easier time engaging,” said Burlak. “They’re comfortable in their own home, with access to things or pets that help calm them. We are finding that over half (around 65%) of the patients who were attending in-person treatment prior to the pandemic, prefer to stay with virtual treatment.”

The IOP program currently consists of five different therapy groups. The largest one, the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy group, is for patients who are experiencing symptoms of trauma, emotion dysregulation, challenges with relationships, symptoms of borderline personality disorder, or at times challenges with mood and suicidal ideation and self-harm. Additional groups include depression and anxiety; adolescent therapy; mental health and substance use; and complex grief and trauma.

Based on the first year’s success, UCHealth is looking to expand the program with additional therapy options.

Patients can be connected to the virtual IOP by their UCHealth provider or they can self-refer. To learn more, or to be screened to join the program call 970.266.4144 or 970.207.4805.

UCHealth’s Investment into Behavioral Health

Prior to the pandemic, UCHealth made a commitment to invest more than $150 million dollars in behavioral health services to meet patients’ needs and improve outcomes. This summer UCHealth University of Colorado will open a 40-bed inpatient psychiatric unit for adults to help address the severe lack of inpatient psychiatric beds in Colorado. UCHealth has also integrated behavioral health services into dozens of primary care clinics.