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Iris Telehealth focuses on hospitals, health centers with virtual psychiatry

Article

The Austin-based company says it’s redesigning the engagement model for behavioral health. Iris is working with nearly 200 hospitals and health centers.

Andy Flanagan, CEO of Iris Telehealth, says he’s optimistic about his company’s prospects, largely because of the pressing need for mental health services nationwide.

Iris is filling a critical need for providers who are seeing an overwhelming number of patients needing mental health services, he said.

Based in Austin, Texas, Iris offers virtual psychiatry and mental health services to hospitals, health systems, and community health centers. Iris is now working with nearly 200 hospitals and community health centers.

“It’s about redesigning the whole engagement model for behavioral health,” Flanagan told Chief Healthcare Executive in a recent interview.

“We’re one of the very few that do what we do at scale,” he said.

Flanagan spoke with Chief Healthcare Executive about Iris and its work with hospitals and health systems.

“Iris is making a difference by collaborating with enterprise health systems and community mental health resources to integrate the patient journey with the appropriate clinician, at the appropriate time, all virtually,” Flanagan said. (See excerpts of our conversation with Andy Flanagan in this video. The story continues below the video.)

Focus on serious mental illness

While Iris does offer services for patients with anxiety and depression, the company’s main focus is on people with more serious issues.

“Iris focuses on serious mental illness primarily and of course we address low-acuity therapy, for stress, anxiety and mild depression,” Flanagan said. “Starting out on the serious mental illness spectrum, allows us to be able to handle escalations, without referral, without a transition of care, and those gaps lead to unfortunate escalations and ED utilization.”

Iris psychiatrists work with hospitals and health systems to assess the risks of patients.

Hospitals and health systems are seeing more patients with behavioral health issues in the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers say they are increasingly worried about long-term mental healthcare costs, which they identified as the leading health-related impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent survey by the Business Group on Health.

Rapid growth

Founded in 2013, Iris has been enjoying substantial growth and now employs 500 workers. Flanagan expects the company to continue adding to its workforce.

In April, the company announced it has secured an additional $40 million in funding from investors, including Concord Health Partners and Columbia Pacific Advisors.

"Iris has an impressive track record of partnering with health systems and other providers to enhance behavioral health services by facilitating access to the appropriate level of care," James Olsen, founder and managing partner of Concord Health Partners, said in April. "We are excited to support Iris, expand its reach, and further enhance its technology capabilities."

Last week, Inc. Magazine placed Iris Telehealth on its annual “Inc. 5000” rankings of the fastest growing private companies in America. The company has seen three-year revenue growth of 109%.

"Since our founding in 2013, our mission has been to expand high-quality virtual behavioral health services to those who need it most,” Flanagan said in a statement on the Inc. 5000 ranking. “This recognition is a testament to that mission and the dedication of our team in making it a reality."

Balancing resources

Iris is working with hospitals to balance the demand they are seeing from the community, and telehealth can provide a more efficient use of resources, Flanagan said.

“A digital-first behavioral health strategy through telehealth not only clinically can deliver the same outcomes, but more importantly, it allows you to balance resources virtually immediately,” Flanagan said.

“So if there’s a no-show, or there’s an escalation, in a different part of the county, across the state, we can actually redirect a clinician, real time, to meet that clinical need based on acuity," he said. "That’s why we’re focused on the right patient, and the right clinician, at the right time.”

Telehealth also helps providers deal with the glaring shortage of behavioral health professionals, Flanagan said.

“We can redirect a clinician virtually within 15 seconds from facility A to facility B,” he said. “There’s no time lost. You can’t do that physically. When you have such a constrained supply, you need that kind of flexibility.”

Iris also views its mission as helping integrate behavioral health with other healthcare needs, Flanagan said.

“When you’re talking about a population that has serious mental illness, they also have comorbidities,” he said. “The evidence shows that it’s important to think about the patient journey in oncology, or cardiology, in terms of their behavioral health, as part of the whole health story.”

“When we walk into a partner, we call customers partners, we’re actually thinking about how we integrate the behavioral health resources at the patient point of need in some of these service lines for a holistic strategy,” he said.

Iris is owned and operated by doctors, so the company isn’t driven solely by big business concerns, Flanagan said.

Nonetheless, Iris is profitable, he said.“We think of ourselves as a medical group,” he said. “We’re trying to be a responsible, profitable, dependable partner over a long period of time.”

‘We’re doing the hard work’

Given the shortage of mental healthcare professionals, Iris anticipates growing demand. While Flanagan said he takes pride in Iris’ success and growth, he said there’s a need for more companies tackling serious mental health issues.

During the first three quarters of 2021, children’s hospitals reported a 14% increase in emergencies related to mental health and a 42% increase in cases of suicide and self-injury, compared to the same period in 2019, according to data from the American Psychological Association.

Behavioral health advocates have pressed Congress to invest more in developing more clinicians. Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association, outlined the gravity of the crisis before a Senate panel in February.

“To say this is a mental health crisis is not enough,” Prinstein said. “This is an accumulation of decades of neglect, stigma, and unequal treatment of mental health compared to physical health.”

Flanagan said the company is focusing on building sustainable healthcare programs for hospitals and health systems.

“We’re doing the hard work,” he said. “We think doing the hard work will help solve the hard problems.”


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