Although the traditional image of therapy involves a patient sitting or lying on their therapist’s couch, a box of tissues close at hand, the pandemic has created a surge in demand for virtual therapy services.
As our lifestyles abruptly changed when COVID-19 struck the world in 2020, and many families were stressed by competing concerns including juggling work and childcare, the lack of socialization opportunities, potential job loss, and the risks of catching a dangerous illness, many Americans saw a significant negative impact to their mental health that has extended for years.
In a CVS survey completed in October 2021, 55% of Americans said that the ongoing impact of COVID-19’s spread had led to higher stress levels. About 40% of Americans also reported signs of anxiety or depressive disorders in early 2021, a jump of 30% from the percent of respondents reporting such issues in 2019.
All this has led to a dramatically increased need for mental health services, including traditional therapy and counseling services – but especially during the height of the pandemic, therapists didn’t want to risk exposing themselves to a dangerous illness to see patients in their offices.
As a result, the vast majority of therapists shifted to a virtual therapy model to treat their existing patients and the surge of new patients who came to them during the pandemic.
The good news is that virtual therapy can be just as effective as traditional, in-office therapy, and there are multiple virtual therapy formats that patients can make use of. Additionally, therapists are able to remotely provide care to any patient in the state(s) they are licensed to practice in, which can give you a much broader range of potential clients for your practice.
Even though many practices now have the option of seeing patients in person again, virtual therapy is a thriving alternative. Let’s take a look at some of the most promising options.
If you can’t see patients in person, video teletherapy is a close alternative – with several added benefits.
In video teletherapy, your patients won’t need to take additional time out of their schedules to drive to and from your office. And of course, by avoiding in-person contact, you’re able to completely eliminate the risk of transmitting COVID-19 or other infectious diseases.
In order to provide effective video teletherapy services, it’s important to have a secure video platform – don’t use a service that can easily be hacked or that others may log into an error while you’re on a videoconference.
It’s also important to ensure that, when you’re seeing multiple patients back to back, you have the ability to grant them access or block them from entering the conference room, so that one patient doesn’t “walk-in” on another’s private session.
Your video service should have high uptime and no bandwidth issues, ensuring that patients won’t be dropped from calls or deal with poor connections when they try to talk to you.
While free video conferencing tools like Google Meet and Zoom are acceptable for many types of business interactions, because you’re in a healthcare practice it’s important to choose a healthcare industry-specific, HIPAA compliant solution that will ensure that you provide a positive and confidential experience for your patients.
If they’re not being seen in an office, many patients are more comfortable simply chatting on the phone with their therapist. This also enables them to participate in therapy sessions via a hands-free Bluetooth headset or speakerphone while driving, freeing up more available time for scheduling.
If you choose to participate in audio teletherapy, you’re still bound by HIPAA requirements, so make sure that you have a secure and private audio connection, and are not using a public or open WiFi network. In order to maintain patient confidentiality, ensure that you’re not storing patient names, phone numbers, or other data in a place where anyone else could see them. If you use your personal phone for this, it’s important to ensure that no one else has access; it may be a safer option to use a second work phone or use a secure virtual private line that ensures HIPAA compliance.
Text message therapy
Some patients don’t feel the need for dedicated sessions or would like to combine office sessions with an ongoing messaging relationship, where they can check in with you regularly and get feedback on their thoughts within the space of a few hours, rather than waiting days for an appointment.
Many therapists have added a text therapy model to their practice. If you choose to do so, make sure that you’re not using your phone’s standard SMS messaging feature: This will not meet the rigid security requirements of HIPAA.
Instead, choose a mobile app to use as a texting platform, where you and your patient are both required to log in to view and write messages, and the data is encrypted. By using this model, you can ensure that if your phone is lost or stolen, you’ll be able to block remote access to confidential electronic patient health information (ePHI).
Outcomes from virtual therapy
It’s certainly more convenient to participate in teletherapy – but are the benefits as significant for your patients as in-office sessions?
By all indications, yes.
A review of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) studies found that telehealth CBT was more effective for treating depression than traditional in-office therapy.
Studies have also found that virtual therapy is a cost-effective solution that enables a greater pool of patients to gain access to mental health services, who might otherwise go without due to a remote location or the high cost of care. Because telehealth services can be used from the privacy of a patient’s home, many people who might otherwise decline to seek treatment because of a perceived stigma are now doing so.
By adding virtual mental health services as an option at your practice – whether shifting fully to this model, or offering it as an alternative to traditional in-office care for a portion of your patients – you’ll be able to support a broader geographic spread of clients, and reduce your own operational costs by eliminating office-based overhead costs (including those many boxes of tissues).
With the right technology to support virtual therapy services, you’ll be able to build a thriving practice that provides support to patients, however, they choose to interact with you.