PHILADELPHIA—While mental health in the workplace is a longstanding and undertreated issue, it has been amplified as health professionals struggle with the extraordinary physical and emotional demands of COVID-19. Emerging evidence indicates that more than two-thirds of frontline healthcare workers will experience psychiatric symptoms, including post-traumatic stress, acute anxiety, substance use, depression, and suicide. To meet this need, a team at Penn Medicine (Penn), in collaboration with UnitedHealth Group, created COBALT—a digital platform that offers immediate access to mental health support for health care workers during this critical time.
COBALT connects Penn employees to curated mental health and wellness content, live groups, and individual virtual support. COBALT uses targeted assessments to streamline content and triage employees to the right level and type of support. With its embedded scheduling and telehealth capabilities, it provides HIPAA-compliant mental healthcare at a safe distance. The available resources include peers, resilience coaches, psychotherapists, and psychiatrists, as well as podcasts, articles, mindfulness sessions, and other group support.
“The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of frontline workers will be felt for many years to come. COBALT is designed to reduce the friction and stigma in accessing mental health care, and provide timely and targeted support and treatment,” said Cecilia Livesey, MD, creator of COBALT and chief of integrated psychiatric services in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “We are in an age where people respond to tailored, on-demand recommendations and care based on their own experiences and preferences. We need to give the workforce effective tools to take care of themselves but in a way that isn’t burdensome and that seamlessly integrates into their daily lives.”
COBALT was created by Livesey in partnership with Penn’s Center for Health Care Innovation, Penn’s Workforce Wellness Committee, the department of Psychiatry, and UnitedHealth Group. Wellness initiatives have been a priority for Penn Medicine during the pandemic. Programs like COBALT are supported through the Workforce Wellness Committee, led by Lisa Bellini, MD, senior vice dean of Academic Affairs in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The launch of COBALT has been incredibly successful, with more than 8,000 sessions from over 5,000 individuals accessing a wide range of content and one-on-one support sessions in the first 30 days,” said Kelley Kugler, MSc, COBALT lead and innovation manager at the Center for Health Care Innovation. “Importantly, with the significant concern around suicidal thoughts and actions for those on the frontlines across the nation, COBALT has provided critical crisis intervention and resources for those most at risk and in need.”
COBALT is the first project to come from a joint Penn, UnitedHealth Group Research and Development Group (UnitedHealth Group R&D) partnership, spearheaded by David Asch, MD, MBA, executive director of the Center for Health Care Innovation, and Deneen Vojta, Executive Vice President, UnitedHealth Group R&D. The partnership is designed to leverage the unique expertise of both Penn and UnitedHealth Group R&D to accelerate innovation.
“The partnership between Penn and UnitedHealth Group R&D signifies the future of healthcare—one where researchers, payers, providers, and health systems work together to intercept and treat disease,” said Allison Davenport, CEO, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Pennsylvania and Board member of the collaborative with Penn. “It takes creative partnership, collaboration, and rapid responses to address problems like the mental health of our healthcare workers during COVID-19. This flexible reaction demonstrates the power of the collaboration between Penn and UnitedHealth Group.”
COBALT is currently available to all Penn Medicine employees. Plans are underway to scale COBALT to meet the high demand for mental health care during this unprecedented time of stress and uncertainty across the nation.
Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, excellence in patient care, and community service. The organization consists of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Penn’s Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine, founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school.
The Perelman School of Medicine is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $550 million awarded in the 2022 fiscal year. Home to a proud history of “firsts” in medicine, Penn Medicine teams have pioneered discoveries and innovations that have shaped modern medicine, including recent breakthroughs such as CAR T cell therapy for cancer and the mRNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities stretch from the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania to the New Jersey shore. These include the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Chester County Hospital, Lancaster General Health, Penn Medicine Princeton Health, and Pennsylvania Hospital—the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.
Penn Medicine is an $11.1 billion enterprise powered by more than 49,000 talented faculty and staff.