COVID-19: A Guide to Making Telepsychiatry Work

Randy Dotinga


April 13, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

As the coronavirus pandemic persists, insurers and the federal government are making it easier for mental health professionals to deliver safe and effective psychiatric services to patients via Zoom, FaceTime, and other conferencing tools. Many psychiatrists, meanwhile, are embracing telepsychiatry for the first time – in some cases with urgency.

Jay H. Shore, MD, MPH, said in an interview that mental health providers at his medical center have gone entirely virtual in recent weeks

"The genie is out of the bottle on this," said Dr. Shore, director of telemedicine at the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center and director of telemedicine programming for the department of psychiatry at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora. He thinks this is the beginning of a new era that will last beyond the pandemic. "There's going to be a much wider and diffuse acceptance of telemedicine as we go forward," he added.

Dr. Shore and several colleagues from across the country offered several tips about factors to consider while learning to use telepsychiatry as a treatment tool.

To start, Dr. Shore advised reviewing the American Psychiatric Association's Telepsychiatry Practice Guidelines and its Telepsychiatry Toolkit, which include dozens of brief videos about topics such as room lighting and managing the content process.

Another resource is the joint APA–American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Telepsychiatry Toolkit, said Shabana Khan, MD, an assistant professor and director of telemedicine for the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University Langone Health.

One of the challenges is managing emergencies long distance. If a patient experiences a mental health emergency in a psychiatrist's office, the clinician can call 911 or direct staff to seek help. "When they're at their house," said Dr. Shore, "it's a little different."

Staff members are not present at home offices, for example, and the patient might live in a different city and therefore have a different 911 system. "It's important to know your protocol about how you plan to handle these emergencies before you start working with the patient," Dr. Shore said.

Another tip is to ask staff to perform a test session to work out the technical kinks before the first patient appointment. "They can make the connection and make sure there's a video signal with adequate quality," Dr. Shore said. Failing to conduct a test run can lead to spending several minutes of a session trying to help patients figure out how to make video conferencing work properly.

"You can spend a lot of time acting as IT support," he said.

It is important to ensure that virtual visits are not interrupted by technical glitches, Daniel Bristow, MD, said in an interview. If possible, hardwire your laptop or computer to an ethernet cable, said Dr. Bristow, president of the Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association, the state's branch of the APA. "This will lead to fewer fluctuations that you could see by using wifi," said Dr. Bristow, who practices in Portland.

Some clinicians are surprised to learn that videoconferencing is a tool that can be used to treat patients with psychosis.

"Initially, I assumed that those with psychotic symptoms might struggle more. But I have been surprised at how well some patients have done," said Andrew J. McLean, MD, MPH, clinical professor and chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

However, it might help to provide additional coaching to those patients, said Dr. Bristow. He offers a warning to these patients: "If you feel like you're getting messages over the TV, my talking to you may make you feel worse." However, "in every case, the patient was able to say, 'I know you're real.' One patient even said: 'I've heard these voices from my TV for years. But I know you're a doctor, and you're in an office trying to help me.' "

Dr. Shore thinks that video meetings have the potential to help psychiatrists and patients form better personal connections than in-person meetings. Patients with anxiety or PTSD, for example, "may feel safer since they're in their own space, and they have a greater sense of control over the session than being in somebody's office," he said.

Dr. Khan agreed. "Some children, such as those with a significant trauma history or with significant anxiety, may feel more comfortable with this modality and may open up more during video sessions," she said. In addition, "the distance that telepsychiatry provides may also enhance feelings of confidentiality and reduce potential stigma that may be associated with seeking mental health care."

When it comes to using videoconferencing to treat children, take advantage of interactive features that are available, said Katherine Nguyen Williams, PhD. Zoom's HIPAA-compliant health care software, for example, offers a "share screen" capability. "It allows for easy interactive activities," said Dr. Nguyen Williams, director of strategic development and clinical innovation at Rady Children's Hospital's department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. "Clinicians can play tic-tac-toe on the screen with the young patients, and they can work on cognitive-behavioral therapy worksheets together on the digital screen. Clinicians can even show a mindfulness video to the patient while actively coaching and giving feedback to the patient as they practice diaphragmatic breathing while viewing the video.

"There are so many more options for making virtual therapy as interactive as face-to-face therapy," said Dr. Nguyen Williams, who also is an associate clinical professor at the university. "This is the key to getting and keeping the patient engaged in telepsychiatry."

Despite the many positive aspects of using telepsychiatry as a treatment tool, some negative factors must be considered. "You lose some of the nuances, subtleties in terms of expression, movement, smell, etc.," said Dr. McLean. "Also, there are rare instances where a part of a physical examination would be appropriate, which also is precluded."

Videoconferencing software might allow the clinician to zoom in to take a closer look at a patient to look for subtle movements and tremors, Dr. McLean said. And, he added, he has asked nursing staff to check for particular signs and symptoms during visits and to describe them to him. "Still," Dr. McLean said, "this does not take the place of being there."

Dr. Shore suggested several other practical considerations. For example, while on a screen, keep the home environment as professional as the office would be, he said. Be clear with family members about the importance of not interrupting and make sure that privacy is maintained. The message should be: "I'm working from home, and I'm not available during these hours," Dr. Shore said. "You need to be aware that, during this time, I need this for clinical work."

Dr. Shore reported serving as chief medical officer of AccessCare Services, and receiving royalties from American Psychiatric Association Publishing and Springer. He also is coauthor with Peter Yellowlees, MD, of "Telepsychiatry and Health Technologies: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals" (Arlington, Va.: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2018). Dr. Khan and Dr. McLean reported no relevant disclosures. Dr. Bristow reported relationships with MCG Health and Insight + Regroup Telehealth.

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