Moving the couch: Telepsychiatry continues to grow

Wednesday, May 2 2012

Reclining on the psychiatrist's couch might be a thing of the past. Or at least on a couch in the same room. With the advent of video conferencing, psychiatrists are increasingly seeing their patients remotely.

By cutting down on transportation time and improving access to remote areas, telepsychiatry allows more people to get treatment - especially people like students who are more constrained by time and space.

In Toronto, for example, the school board is setting up a system for students to get psychiatric help from afar. By partnering with local (but not that local) psychiatrists, the school system is vastly increasing access to affected students who might otherwise have gone untreated, Telelink Mental Health Program director Tony Pignatiello told the Toronto Globe and Mail .

“It introduces a terrific opportunity for preventative care," said Pignatiello. This prevention is crucial, as the Toronto District School Board estimates that only one in six of its students who suffer from a mental-health issue gets treatment.

The advantages of telepsychiatry, however, may well go beyond simply increasing access.

"It's much easier to talk via a screen, especially with issues like anxiety disorders and sexual abuse," psychiatrist Fred Thomas told Time Magazine. "Students feel safe."

By using web conferencing as a treatment method, in other words, patients may find it easier to address uncomfortable problems. And - especially with students - growing comfort with technology and long-distance communication is sure to make telepsychiatry a larger factor going forward.

"Videoconferencing is part of [adolescents'] everyday existence," Dr. Martin Drell, head of child psychiatry for Louisiana State University's health-science center in New Orleans, told Time.

These and other benefits seem to be helping psychiatric internet meetings spread throughout the US as well.

"Telepsychiatry is a new treatment option catching on throughout the state of New Jersey," said Valerie Fox, president of the Morris County Mental Health Coalition, in an opinion piece published in the Daily Register (New Jersey). Fox believes that this trend could both help improve access and lower costs.

"Video conferencing saves time and money so it would follow that more patients could be seen through this technology and perhaps costs would come down," she said. "I hope New Jersey looks further into this."

And industry experts believe that Fox is not alone. As technology and medicine continue to combine, the psychiatrist and her couch are likely to get farther and farther apart.