Telepsychiatry is a term that references the delivery of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment using telecommunications technology, usually video conferencing over the internet. Sometimes the term is applied to all mental and behavioral health care that is delivered at a distance.
While in the past, mental health-related specialties have been little affected by advancing technology, telemedicine is poised to have a significant impact on the delivery of behavioral health services because it offers significant benefits to patients, increases the availability of providers to underserved
Barriers to Mental Health Services
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that at any given time 25% of American adults suffer from a mental health condition and that almost half will experience one at one point in their life. However, despite the prevalence of these conditions, there are barriers that keep many patients from getting the help that they need. People site cost, lack of nearby providers, and the enduring stigma associated with seeking help as challenges that get in the way of mental health care.
How Telepsychiatry Can Improve Access
The full potential of telepsychiatry is health care at long last. There is already a significant collection of evidence to suggest that remote access to care can help overcome some of the barriers to quality mental health care. Here’s how:
Cost — Telepsychiatry can reduce the cost of behavioral health care by providing an affordable platform for delivering service. Patients don’t have to be concerned about transportation and childcare costs, lost wages, or other secondary expenses that come up when visiting a provider’s office. In most states, insurers must cover video visits at a rate on par with that of an in-person visit, so patients benefit from their health coverage as well.
Distance — Video removes the geographical issues associated with providing mental health care services because the encounter can occur anywhere that both the provider and the patient have an internet connection. As with other healthcare services, rural areas are the most likely to be underserved by psychiatry practices. Telepsychiatry eliminates the additional time and cost associated with travel and makes it possible to intervene quickly in crisis situations. Remote visits can also be used to support intake into inpatient facilities.
Shame — Sadly, there is still a stigma associated with seeking mental health care that can have the effect of discouraging people from getting the help they need. Telemedicine offers the ultimate in confidentiality for people who may not feel comfortable being seen in a psychiatrist’s office. In addition, some people are able to open up and be more honest when communicating using electronic means rather than in-person.
Security and privacy should be top of mind concerns for anyone using the internet for any purpose. However, with purpose-built telehealth software, it is possible to protect patient information and comply with HIPAA and other regulations. Consumer-grade video chat solutions like Facetime and Skype should never be used for the delivery of mental health care. Instead, providers should turn to solutions that are encrypted, and vendors that will enter into a business associate agreement.
The Patient Experience
For a typical patient, the telepsychiatry experience is little different from the traditional route. Patients are typically referred to a psychiatrist or other mental health care provider by their primary care provider or local mental health clinic. Once the patient’s insurance coverage is verified, a video visit can be scheduled. Most states do not require that providers establish a relationship in-person, but some do, so providers should be familiar with the regulations that apply to their location.
The patient and provider will connect using telemedicine software that is easy to use on a laptop or mobile device. The flow of the appointment will be exactly as if it were taking place in person. The provider will discuss the patient’s case in detail and make a treatment plan. Providers who are authorized to prescribe medications can do so using telepsychiatry. Follow-up appointments or necessary referrals can be conducted the same way.
Telehealth will play a crucial role in the future of American health care, particularly when it comes to mental health. The advantages for patients and the system as a whole are substantial and will grow as the use of video becomes even more widespread.