Psychotherapy Online

Online Therapy: The Next Wave

by Kelly McCarthy.

Psychology Today, March 2001 v34 i2 p10

With the advent of modern technology, videoconferencing has become the rage in all types of office environments--even mental health practitioners are forging virtual patient-therapist relationships. And while those contemplating "telepsychiatry" may have reservations, new research suggests their concerns may be unwarranted. In a review of telepsychiatry's procedures and methodologies, published recently in the journal Psychiatric Services, researchers found that psychiatric interviews conducted by videoconferencing were not only reliable, but resulted in "high levels of satisfaction" among users.

Conducted by a group of doctors, lead researcher B. Christopher Frueh, Ph.D., a psychiatry professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, believes there are multiple groups of people who can benefit from videoconferencing, which allows patients and therapists to converse via closed-circuit television. "You can put the equipment in the homes or offices of patients," Frueh explains, or alternatively, "a patient can go to a nearby satellite clinic and conference with experts. Clinicians can also conference with each other for references or discussion of cases. The Department of Defense uses it to contact people on ships in the ocean. You can use it for prison-security purposes so the patients can stay in prison."

Frueh's data was gathered from the online database MEDLINE, which included research from 1970 through February 2000 on telepsychiatry, telemedicine and videoconferencing. His team culled anecdotal accounts on videoconferencing and case studies of various applications of the technology. They also looked at two clinical trials indicating that patients treated via telepsychiatry had greater attendance rates and required dramatically shorter sessions than those who had person-to-person therapy.

Videoconferencing may have its disadvantages, including less privacy and confidentiality and a less fulfilling experience, but Frueh believes some patients may overcome these shortcomings by first meeting with the therapist. And for those put off by the cost of attending therapy sessions, the researchers also discovered one report comparing telepsychiatry to conventional mental health services in rural Queensland, Australia, and found that a possible $210,000 a year could be saved in the state using the technology because of reduced travel.