Telepsychiatry: Practical Pointers and Potential Pitfalls
When meeting patients online, mental-health practitioners must confront a host of issues.
During the present COVID-19 pandemic, mental-health practitioners of all disciplines are becoming accustomed to a variety of telemedicine-enabled modalities for treatment and evaluation. A growing variety of telemedicine platforms are now in use. This development has produced an explosion of articles and other documents describing theoretical advantages and disadvantages of teletherapy in psychiatry and how it can best be carried out.1-5 For more than a decade we have practiced with the assistance of telecommunication technology for patient and examinee accessibility. Based on our own and our colleagues experience with clinical and forensic telepsychiatry, what follows are some practical pointers and potential pitfalls for clinical and forensic practitioners.
Over the past several decades, rural health care delivery, the courts, and prisons have increasingly relied on telemedicine to accomplish their work. This modality has increased access to examinations and improved care by medical professionals in remote geographic communities. However, it took the pandemic of 2020—and the suspension of some governmental regulations until an emergency no longer exists—to increase significantly the use of telemedicine. In forensic settings, telelinks are now used even by judges conducting trials, as well as in forensic competency evaluations, independent medical examinations, and tribunal hearings for evaluating claims of physician liability.
It is clear by now that telelink-enabled clinical and forensic evaluations are here to stay, given their evident convenience and cost savings. This is especially true in the forensic context, where the examiner and examinee, having no ongoing local treatment relationship, may be located in different regions of the country, or the examinee may be incarcerated or otherwise immobile. Moreover, elimination of the costs of travel allows for more frequent (virtual) meetings with patients, who can more easily maintain attention and concentration in shorter sessions. These may include persons suffering from psychosis, severe anxiety, depression, dissociation, fatigue, and/or lack of self-integration. Such meetings may routinely be preferred because the absence of travel, parking, and security requirements allows for more flexible scheduling and time- and cost-effectiveness.
Nonetheless, the authors believe that insufficient attention has been paid to concrete structural and behavioral details of this form of psychiatric work. There are practical issues to keep in mind that can increase the efficacy of clinical and forensic telepsychiatry, and steer clear of common pitfalls. (Except where otherwise specified, the term “interview” is meant to apply to both clinical and forensic interactions.)
Authors: Donna M. Norris, M.D, Harold J. Bursztajn, M.D., Thomas G. Gutheil, M.D. and Archie Brodsky
Published online: Psychiatric Times, January 27, 2021