Over the past two decades, many smartphone users have taken advantage of technology to interact with friends and family and to hold brief meetings for their jobs.  With the introduction of video conferencing, individuals and groups in different cities, states or countries are able to participate in the same meeting.

As a result, many businesses started to hold online meetings with employees, clients and other companies. Many of us have become more familiar with FaceTime and Skype as ways to see and interact with our families and friends rather than just speaking with them on the phone.  

What is telehealth?

This technology of course has spread to the field of medicine in the form of telehealth – the use of a phone, smartphone, tablet or computer to connect a patient with a clinician for medical advice. While technology allowed telehealth to become a reality, it was one that was seldom used in the medical community.

As telehealth evolved, more health care practitioners sought ways to engage with their patients. It was also beneficial when distance or a medical condition prevented a patient from seeing a provider in person at an office.  

How the COVID crisis impacted telehealth

With the arrival of coronavirus, telehealth has now become yet another “new normal.” With so many states issuing stay at home orders and social distancing, insurance companies and states have temporarily lifted barriers to telehealth. Now, it offers many providers an opportunity to continue to meet with their patients while also maintaining safety and social distancing.  

Telehealth for behavioral health

For behavioral health, telehealth is still in its infancy, as behavioral health providers begin to navigate this new way of providing care. This is a change from our training, as most traditional behavioral health education programs emphasize the importance of building in-person relationships with patients.

As we transition to telehealth, mental health clinicians need to learn the best interventions and how to engage in therapy through technology. There are other concerns as well, including insurance coverage and being licensed to practice in the state where the patient resides.

The benefits

As we continue to use telehealth to provide care, we are adapting to how to interact with our patients in a new way.  

The coronavirus pandemic caused many of us to feel isolated from our family and friends. While coronavirus removed the possibility of in-person therapeutic relationships, the option for telehealth allowed us to maintain some level of care and therapy for our patients. When care must be continued, this provides an excellent alternative.

Telehealth also improves access issues. It allows us to engage with patients who typically would struggle to get to appointments. Barriers such as transportation issues, health conditions, or socio-economic limitations are removed through telemedicine, allowing for more interactions between provider and patient. 

The downside

Unfortunately, along with the benefits are some negatives.

  • As mental health clinicians, we rely on the therapeutic relationship to build trust, to have patients share information, to share a smile, or pay attention to non-verbal cues. With telehealth we sometimes lose those moments to learn from each other as it is different speaking to someone on a screen rather than sitting in your office.  
  • In an office, there is a better sense of privacy. Many patients may have others in the home, and privacy can become a concern when using telehealth.  
  • Having adequate technology plays such an important role in video telehealth. At times it can create a new barrier if the patient does not have the latest technology due to old computers or phones, or poor or no internet connections.  
  • Age can be a barrier if patients don’t know how to use video platforms such as Facetime, Skype or Zoom. The very young will not have the patience to sit at a screen while a clinician asks questions, though they may have a little more patience when sitting in the office just knowing that the lollipop is waiting at the end of the checkup.

New opportunities for the future

If there was a positive outcome to the coronavirus, it is that telehealth is presenting us with new opportunities that will eventually benefit both patients and providers.

  • Not all behavioral health and medical concerns can be discussed over the phone or a video platform. But maybe rather than having to go to the doctor’s office for multiple visits, some may be in-person and others through telehealth.  
  • While surgery will never be performed via a telehealth platform, perhaps in the future the doctor can do his pre- and post-operative meetings with the patient using telehealth.   
  • There will be new opportunities for states and insurance companies to have more conversations about how telehealth can work and to start to address the restrictions that have been in place.  When traveling to an appointment is a hardship for a patient, telehealth offers an office visit without the travel. For areas where there is little or no available medical or behavioral health services, individuals will be able to secure a provider even if they are hundreds of miles away.  

While in-person care will always be around and often preferred, telehealth has a new place to expand services and this is just the beginning of what it may look like.

For more information on telehealth, visit our website.

Gary Regan, LICSW

Gary Regan, LICSW

Gary Regan is a licensed independent clinical social worker and the clinical director of the Adolescent Partial Hospital and SafeQuest programs at Bradley Hospital.