The Future of Psychiatry is Online

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We live in a world where technology is ubiquitous. Most industries have adapted to how tech-driven the Western consumer landscape is by offering their products or services online.

The advantages of integrating technology use into any service provider space are endless as it expands reach and increases ease of accessibility and service use. The behavioral health sector is necessarily following suit as telepsychiatry platforms are growing in number and the demand for these services is on the rise.

Because technology use has become an essential human activity, the future of telepsychiatry is assured. Telepsychiatry leverages cutting edge technology to modernize the health care industry and respond to a number of challenges that currently exist. Though we’ve seen an increase in telemedicine in general, the future for telepsychiatry is particularly bright.

Quality of Telepsychiatric Care

Unlike most other medical professionals, psychiatrists do not have to be in the same room as their patients in order to conduct a comprehensive evaluation and administer high-quality care.

While using online videoconferencing, psychiatrists maintain their ability to observe patients’ range of facial expressions, hygiene, tone, rate of speech and a host of other subtle nonverbal cues and behaviors. As a result, the quality of care delivered through this medium is not compromised.

Studies have shown that telepsychiatry is as effective as, and in some cases even more effective than, the standard, face-to-face model of care (Hilty, Ferrer, Burke Parish, Johnston, Callahan, & Yellowlees, 2013; Zoler, 2012). Though there are certainly differences between traditional, in-person psychiatry and telepsychiatry, the pros indisputably outweigh the cons. Hospitals, clinics, providers, patients and whole communities stand to benefit from psychiatric services offered via telecommunication.

In light of the unfortunate behavioral health care circumstances that prevail in our nation, we are in need of change and psychiatry’s expansion online has the potential to be a part of that change.

The State of Psychiatric Care in the U.S.

In 2015, there is an overall shortage of mental health services and an especially glaring shortage of psychiatric resources. As a result, patients are currently underserved. Part of this is a result of historical trends.

Going back to the 1960s, there was a move towards deinstitutionalization in health care. The improvements in medication and new treatment modalities, coupled with patients’ rights advocacy led to the mass closing of large, single purpose psychiatric hospitals, which were replaced by outpatient community mental health services.

While this was a positive movement in many respects, we now find ourselves with a pressing need for psychiatric services but in an absence of specialized institutes or places for patients to go. Consequently, people are turning to hospital emergency rooms with increased frequencies. Community hospitals have been met with serious challenges due to the scarcity of psychiatric resources as they are ill-equipped to meet the spike in demand.

In general, the United States is faced with an overall shortage of mental health care providers. A lack of psychiatrists means understaffed emergency departments and an inability to efficiently provide quality care. Consequently, length of bed stay has increased, which depletes hospital budgets and their already limited resources.

The mental health care provider shortage is pervasive with its impact extending beyond hospitals, to community mental health clinics, skilled nursing facilities, prisons, retirement homes and federally qualified health centers. Facilities located in rural areas, in particular are struggling to keep up, as there is a notably inadequate depth of resources for psychiatric patients in these regions. 

Additional factors contributing to the heightened demand include greater awareness and reduced stigma associated with mental illness. While these social changes are inarguably positive and they increase the likelihood that people in need will seek help, the result is a more consistent inflow of patients to emergency rooms and mental health clinics. Thus, the disparity between supply of psychiatrists and number of people seeking treatment widens.

Bridging the Gap Between Supply and Demand

The mix of contributing factors has ultimately led to what many in the U.S. regard as a mental health care crisis. As our nation attempts to address this crisis, it is safe to say that telepsychiatry services have brought a glimmer of light to a seemingly gloomy sky in the behavioral health world.

With telepsychiatry, help is more available and accessible to a diverse range of patient populations. For example, if an emergency room lacks an on-staff psychiatrist, a psychiatrist in another location can administer care virtually. This way, patients no longer have to endure drawn out wait times to be evaluated and there is a quicker turnover rate in the ED.

Mental health clinics can use online telepsychiatry platforms to bring psychiatrists into their centers in a timely fashion and provide specialized treatment to patients whose needs necessitate psychiatric care. With this model, patients receive the treatment they need without having to travel several hours to access it.

Though using online services to deliver psychiatric care does not create more psychiatrists, what is does do is facilitate a more efficient allocation of existing resources, which helps to bridge the gap between supply and demand and decrease the volume of unmet needs.

Increased Flexibility, Convenience and Consistency

The flexibility in hours and location that telepsychiatry affords fosters an improved ability to coordinate patient and physician schedules and improves access. This is mutually beneficial as it helps to ensure regularity of appointments, even when the patient, psychiatrist, or both are traveling or otherwise unable to meet face-to-face.

Regularity has a number of advantages. Not only does it promote a steady stream of income for physicians, but it ensures consistent care for patients, which improves their likelihood of making progress and maintaining treatment gains.

Online telepsychiatry platforms can also revolutionize the way psychiatrists practice. Many practitioners see patients in a number of care facilitates while simultaneously treating patients privately. Telepsychiatry centralizes a provider’s practice and the elimination of travel time creates more availability in their schedule for them to actually practice psychiatry.

Patient Response

Some people may be more comfortable pursuing treatment knowing they can do so at their own discretion, as telepsychiatry permits. Unfortunately, certain patients face internal judgments and fear that others will find out about their mental health struggles. This can dissuade them from pursuing treatment.

Visiting a psychiatrist online can help to decrease the shame and anxiety of receiving care as patients do not have to physically enter a mental health care clinic or psychiatric center. Patients might even perceive a higher level of confidentiality when receiving psychiatric services online rather than face-to-face and therefore, view it as more private. 

Furthermore, the virtual distance between patient and provider, together with the comfort patients experience in a familiar environment like their home, may increase their likelihood of opening up, disclosing and engaging with their physician.

Video chat technology is an incredibly simple, widely used and cost-effective mode of communication. These features, in addition to the considerable advantages telepsychiatry offers, propel the future of psychiatry online. Demand for these services continues to rise and the increase in their acceptance is changing the field. Hospitals, clinics, psychiatrists and patients are embracing telepsychiatry and this medium of care offers promise for the future of the behavioral health field.