“The pediatrician is the first port of call for families looking to find any form of care for their child, including behavioral health care. However, pediatricians often have no place to send these families because of long waitlists and affordability issues. Most mental health providers are out of network — according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental health providers are four times more likely to be out of network compared to other providers,” said Natalie Schneider, Fort’s CEO.
To address these issues, her startup developed a telehealth-based mental health clinic that partners with pediatricians for referrals and health plans for coverage. Fort was created at Redesign Health, a New York City-based company that launches healthcare startups. It was built in partnership with the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit focused on children’s mental health.
Fort is designed to improve children’s access to mental health professionals, as many pediatricians currently don’t know to whom they should refer patients and families don’t know who to trust, Schneider declared. She said this has become an even bigger problem as more and more children are presenting mental health conditions at primary care visits.
“Growing up in today’s world, kids are facing a social media obsessed society, substantial political and environmental volatility and a global pandemic. Combined with natural insecurities that come with growing up, kids are more likely to report mental health concerns — including stress and depression — than any other age group. And only about half of those who need mental health care are currently receiving it,” Schneider said.
A family’s first point of contact with Fort is usually through a referral from a primary care provider referral, she declared. The startup gives families access to telehealth sessions with its clinical staff, which is made up of licensed child therapists and board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrists.
Each patient sees a child therapist for their first session. After evaluating the patient’s unique needs, the therapist recommends a path forward using up to three options: individual therapy sessions, therapy sessions with their parents, and/or psychiatry services. If the selected path doesn’t seem like the right fit to the child and their family, they can choose a different path or change therapists.
During the course of a patient’s treatment plan, Fort’s therapists and psychiatrists track the child’s progress with clinical assessments and share feedback with the family — and their pediatrician, pending permission.
The startup offers its services using a fee-for-service model. It accepts patients covered by Aetna, Optum/UnitedHealthcare and Geisinger Health Plan, and there is also a cash-pay option. Fort currently only operates in New Jersey, but it has plans to expand into New York and additional states later this year.
The company employs five therapists and three child and adolescent psychiatrists but is hiring additional therapists every week and plans to have more than 50 therapists by the end of the year, Schneider said. To help with this effort, the startup engaged in fundraising and was successful, securing a $4.5 million investment from Blue Venture Fund.
Schneider pointed to a couple of factors: the model of direct partnership with pediatricians and the partnership with the Child Mind Institute. The latter includes the development of a proprietary four-week clinical training program for evidence-based care, she said.
Overall, Schneider said the goal of her new startup is to help children receive the behavioral healthcare they need in a faster and more affordable fashion.
“Nine out of 10 children visit their pediatrician once a year, and the average delay between symptom onset and getting mental healthcare is eight years. Connecting primary and mental health care lets Fort Health treat more children sooner,” she said.
Photo: SDI Productions, Getty Images