When providers initially consider whether or not to make the transition and begin providing some, or all, of their treatment through a digital delivery method, there is often strong hesitation simply because many fear that telehealth must somehow diminish the quality of treatment. The fear is that since telemedicine is a newer, alternative form of treatment, it is somehow also less effective or remains a less desirable standard of care.
But the truth is that this technology represents much of the future in healthcare, and telehealth will lead the charge into the next era. Telehealth works particularly well-using digital and, especially, video-based-care models. This is one of the few health specialties that doesn’t necessarily require ‘touch’ when doing an assessment or delivering treatment. Without that need, the provider does not typically need to be in the same room as the patient.
Another argument commonly provided is that somehow, the communication between patient and provider won’t be quite as good as an in-person visit. This may have been true when telehealth was in its infancy and lacked the technological capabilities it currently has. With the recent advancements in video conferencing systems and the ability to access much higher Internet speeds, the quality of video provides an environment in which there is little difference to an in-person consultation. The provider will still be able to pick up on nonverbal cues and observe other factors such as their behaviors, facial expressions, hygiene, and speech patterns.
Despite the assumption that telemental health could lead to a lower standard of care, multiple studies have shown the opposite. A recent study found that telemental health care is as effective as a standard consultation. It also greatly increases access to care for many patients who may not otherwise be able to seek treatment. Allowing the patient to seek treatment in their community, or even in their own home, has led to less travel, fewer absences from work, less time waiting, more choices for treatment, and ultimately, better health outcomes. Providers usually have less travel time, too, allowing them to see more patients. All of these factors lead to greater access for patients. This is especially important given the huge shortage of providers in this field.
In addition to the data indicating that telemental health is at least as good as in-person consultation, additional data support the idea that it may be the superior treatment method with specific patient populations. In one study, researchers found that the video-based care model with certain children and adolescents led to a superior psychiatric assessment than a face-to-face consultation. These researchers found four factors to support their view, including the novelty of the consultation, the capacity to provide direction, the extra psychological and physical distance, and the family interaction’s authenticity.
While the data supports the idea that telemental health programs are as effective, and in certain cases, more effective, than the traditional care model, there is still the question of how the patient perception of their care might impact the efficacy of treatment. It turns out that in this area, too, telemental health services are shown to be as effective as face-to-face communication in most settings. A systematic review of studies looking at patient treatment satisfaction and therapeutic alliance found similar results between the two care models.
Providers considering offering telemental health services should familiarize themselves with the research and consider the many ways this care model could benefit their patients and themselves. Remote telemental health services represent the future of psychiatry and psychology.