The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown has caused many setbacks and barriers in the healthcare community. In particular, counseling and therapy services have had to adapt their practices to technological platforms in order to reach their patients from a safe distance.
Telehealth is actually not a new practice and has been available since the mid-1990s, starting with phone calls between physicians and patients. Since then, it’s followed a steady growth over the last two decades, generating favorable reviews from both patients and healthcare providers. Especially with new technological innovations and easy applications such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, telehealth has become more accessible than ever. However, the onset of the pandemic has caused these numbers to skyrocket, as many psychologists (and other medical personnel) adjust to remote methods of providing care.
So what exactly is telehealth counseling and how does it work?
Telehealth counseling, also known as teletherapy, telepsychology, or online therapy services, uses telecommunications and technology in order to provide health care outside of traditional in-person facilities. Oftentimes, the technology used includes video conferencing, telephone calling, and various other online platforms.
The most common form of online therapy is through a live video conferencing device, such as Zoom, FaceTime, etc., so that one can speak with their therapist as if they were in the same room. Some other less common options include email exchanges, phone calls, and various online assessments for identifying signs of mental disorders.
The transition for therapy and counseling services has been relatively easier compared to some other healthcare providers, as there is usually no need for outside equipment or machines to be used in diagnosing and treating patients.
Why is telehealth counseling important?
Telehealth counseling has actually presented many benefits, even before the pandemic. The ability to deliver care remotely allows for mental health providers to reach a wider audience. Oftentimes, there are geographical barriers or lack of access to childcare or transportation that prevent people from receiving the treatment they need.
In addition, it also tackles the issue of the stigma surrounding mental health treatment. With the ability to log onto a call in the privacy and comfort of your own home, patients who feel embarrassed to walk into a clinic or mental health center no longer need to face that concern in order to get help.
Telehealth counseling is especially important and useful for first time patients seeking psychological services, allowing them to obtain services online and slowly transition into their mental health care.
What has the response been?
Overall, the response has been extremely positive. Data from a national research study conducted by CommonSpirit Health showed that 83% of patients in 2020 cited their virtual visits as “just as good, or much better” compared to an in-person visit. According to national statistics, telehealth now accounts for almost 30% of all health care visits, thanks to changes in state and federal regulations that previously made it harder to use telehealth technology.
This is an exponential growth from before the pandemic, where telehealth only accounted for 3% of all patient visits. And in just the month of March 2020 alone, there was a 154% increase in virtual healthcare visits.
But is it effective?
Yes! To date, all research done by psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and other mental healthcare providers has shown that mental health care delivered remotely is effective. This is an area that has been heavily studied, amassing a substantial base of literature on telehealth interventions and the effectiveness of teletherapy.
However, it is important to note that there is still a long way to go. Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, where telehealth counseling patients increased drastically, experts have found areas where studies can be strengthened.
For example, with phone sessions, it is easy for therapists to miss non-verbal cues. Additionally, issues with technology, like lagging, can cause misinterpretations and make miscommunications easier. And although home environments are generally more comfortable for patients, there can also be distractions that prevent them from fully opening up and being properly treated.
That being said, the pros far outweigh the cons so far, as the majority of patients have cited positive responses to their virtual treatment options.
What does this mean for the future of therapy?
The pandemic, though a large barrier, is not the first cause that has blocked patients from seeking mental help and treatment. Up to 80% of adults never receive treatment for their mental health concerns due to various reasons, such as feeling embarrassment due to stigma or lacking access to proper mental health resources.
With the rise of virtual therapy,
Although virtual counseling still is not the most accessible, especially for people who lack access to the necessary technology or financial funding, it is a step in the right direction for making mental health resources more readily available for all who need it.