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Encouraging Patients to Try Teletherapy

By Jennifer Larson, contributor

More and more people are turning to telehealth and remote therapy to help them address their mental health needs. Like many providers, you may offer telehealth as part of your practice, but recent events have made it more important. When talking to patients about their options, you may want to review some of the benefits they can receive from virtual therapy, sometimes known as teletherapy.

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The rapid growth of telehealth  

There’s one huge reason that many providers have recently pivoted to telehealth–or expanded their offerings to include telehealth: COVID-19. There’s no denying the impact that the pandemic has had on telemedicine. People were reluctant or unable to see their providers in person, so providers offered them the option for virtual appointments instead. 

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), telehealth use shot up during the first quarter of 2020. Another report issued midyear by Frost & Sullivan, a research and consulting firm, predicted that telehealth use would be up 65 percent in 2020, and predicted a sevenfold growth in telehealth by 2025. 

But the mental health field was already ahead of the game. 

According to a 2019 report published in the journal Psychiatric Services, the percentage of mental health facilities offering telemedicine services to their patients almost doubled from 5 percent in 2010 to 29 percent in 2017; in some regions, like the South, nearly half were offering telemedicine. Telehealth helped them expand access to their services, which was particularly important in rural and underserved areas with provider shortages. And better Internet access made it possible. 

“I have been using telehealth almost exclusively since March, and I have been surprised by the benefits to clients,” said Elizabeth Marston, MSW, LCSW, a social worker with a private practice in Georgia who also writes for Choosing Therapy. “It has gone from being a necessary headache to something that I will continue to use moderately even after we are able to safely meet in person.” 

How to reassure your patients

While you may already be providing telehealth services for many of your mental health patients, some might still be reluctant to take part. They may fear that teletherapy won’t work for them or they may not understand how it works. 

Here are some things that can help to reassure them:

  • 1. Remote therapy will save them some valuable time. “This is an opportunity to get much needed care from the comfort of your own home, car or work,” said Tichianaa Armah, MD, chief psychiatry officer for Community Health Center, Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut. “Imagine not having to take a half-day off of work in order to travel to the therapist’s office, wait in a waiting room, and travel back to your final destination. The travel time by car or public transportation may likely take longer than the time involved in the therapy session.”
  • 2. It can reduce a patient’s exposure. If you have patients who are high-risk and especially vulnerable to COVID-19 or other infectious agents, teletherapy may be the best option for them. They can still get the mental health care they need without venturing out into public. “You won’t have to sit in a waiting room and be exposed to others,” noted Ana Martinez, a licensed mental health counselor with Lumen Cordis Behavioral Health, LLC, in West Palm Beach, Florida.
  • 3. Patients can get the care they need when it’s hard to get moving. Depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses can sometimes make it hard for people to leave the house--or even get out of bed. “Telehealth allows an opportunity to receive care for those who may be most debilitated and help them get to the point of leaving the bed and the house and help them achieve the goals of mental health recovery that they might never otherwise achieve,” said Armah.
  • 4. Patients can get help learning to use the technology. Some patients are more tech-savvy than others, but anyone can struggle when first learning to use the telehealth platform. Offer easy ways for your patients to get assistance with setting it up, and reiterate that you and your staff are always open to questions and concerns about using the technology.

Not every patient in every situation will necessarily be suited to teletherapy services, cautioned Shannon Gunnip, a licensed mental health counselor in New York and Rhode Island. So you may want to be careful when screening patients. That may include also making sure you are licensed to provide care to patients when they contact you from other states.

“I have had clients reach out to me from states where I cannot practice, and I have to turn them down in order to comply with the regulations of my licensing boards,” Gunnip said. 

If you’re just getting started…

Charles Sweet, MD, MPH, a physician with the Specialty Clinic of Austin, began offering telehealth visits to his patients in 2010.  His advice for providers who are just starting out in telemedicine? Make sure to have a reliable telehealth platform that can handle the volume of patients you expect to serve, and consider setting up automated reminders to make sure everyone is on the same page about scheduled visits. 

“As a behavioral health provider, you have to be flexible because technical issues and hiccups will occur,” he noted.
“Adapt and overcome!”

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LOCUM LEADERS has locum tenens assignments for psychiatrists and other mental health professionals throughout the U.S., and can help with any necessary licensing if working in a different state.