Some Telepsychiatry 'Here to Stay' Post-COVID

Jeff Craven

July 22, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life in numerous ways, including use of telehealth services for patients in all specialties. But telepsychiatry is an area not likely to go away even after the pandemic is over, according to Sanjay Gupta, MD.

The use of telepsychiatry has escalated significantly," said Dr. Gupta, of the DENT Neurologic Institute, in Amherst, N.Y., in a bonus virtual meeting presented by Current Psychiatry and the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists.

Dr Sanjay Gupta

About 90% of clinicians are performing telepsychiatry, Dr. Gupta noted, through methods such as phone consults, email, and video chat. As patients with psychiatric issues grapple with issues related to COVID-19 involving lockdowns, restrictions on travel, and consumption of news, they are presenting with addiction, depression, paranoia, mood lability, and other problems.

One issue immediately facing clinicians is whether to keep patients on long-acting injectables as a way to maintain psychological stability in patients with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and alcoholism — something Dr. Gupta and session moderator Henry A. Nasrallah, MD, advocated. "We should never stop the long-acting injectable to switch them to oral medication. Those patients are very likely to relapse," Dr. Nasrallah said.

During the pandemic, clinicians need to find "safe and novel ways of providing the injection," and several methods have been pioneered. For example, if a patient with schizophrenia is on lockdown, a nurse can visit monthly or bimonthly to administer an injection, check on the patient’s mental status, and assess whether that patient needs an adjustment to their medication.

Other clinics are offering "drive-by" injections to patients who arrive by car, and a nurse wearing a mask and a face shield administers the injection from the car window. Monthly naltrexone also can be administered using one of these methods, and telepsychiatry can be used to monitor patients, Dr. Gupta noted at the meeting, presented by Global Academy for Medical Education.

"In my clinic, what happens is the injection room is set up just next to the door, so they don’t have to walk deep into the clinic," Dr. Gupta said. "They walk in, go to the left, [and] there’s the injection room. They sit, get an injection, they’re out. It’s kept smooth."

Choosing the Right Telehealth Option

Clinicians should be aware of important regulatory changes that occurred that made widespread telehealth more appealing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Payment parity with in-office visits makes telehealth a viable consideration, while some states have begun offering telehealth licenses to practice across state lines.

There is wide variation with regard to which states provide licensure and prescribing privileges for out-of-state clinicians without seeing those patients in person. "The most important thing: The psychiatry service is provided in the state where the patient is located," Dr. Gupta said. Clinicians should check with that state’s board to figure out specific requirements. "Preferably if you get it in writing, it’s good for you," he said.

Deciding who the clinician is seeing — consulting with patients or other physicians/clinicians — and what type of visits a clinician will conduct is an important step in transitioning to telepsychiatry. Visits from evaluation through ongoing care are possible through telepsychiatry, or a clinician can opt to see just second opinion visits, Dr. Gupta said. It is also important to consider the technical ability of the patient to do video conferencing.

As HIPAA requirements for privacy have relaxed, clinicians now have an array of teleconferencing options to choose from; platforms such as FaceTime, Doximity, Vidyo,, Zoom, and video chat through EMR are popular options. However, when regular HIPAA requirements are reinstated after the pandemic, clinicians will need to find a compliant platform and sign a business associate agreement to stay within the law.

"Right now, my preferred use is FaceTime," Dr. Gupta said. "Quick, simple, easy to use. A lot of people have an iPhone, and they know how to do it. I usually have the patient call me and I don’t use my personal iPhone; my clinic has an iPhone."

How a clinician looks during a telepsychiatry visit is also important. Lighting, position of the camera, and clothing should all be considered. Keep the camera at eye level, test the lighting in the room where the call will take place, and use artificial lighting sources behind a computer, Dr. Gupta said.

Other tips for telepsychiatry visits include silencing devices and microphones before a session begins, wearing solid-colored clothes, and having an identification badge visible to the patient. Sessions should be free of background distractions, such as a dog barking or a child interrupting, with the goal of creating an environment where the patient feels free to answer questions.

Contingency planning is a must for video visits, Dr. Gupta said. "I think the simplest thing is to see the patient. But all the stuff that’s the wraparound is really hard, because issues can arise suddenly, and we need to plan." If a patient has a medical issue or becomes actively suicidal during a session, it is important to know contact information for the local police and crisis services. Clinicians also must plan for technology failure and provide alternative options for continuing the sessions, such as by phone.

Selecting Patients for Telepsychiatry

Not all patients will make the transition to telepsychiatry. "You can’t do telepsychiatry with everyone. It is a risk, so pick and choose," Dr. Gupta said.

"Safety is a big consideration for conducting a telepsychiatry visit, especially when other health care providers are present. For example, when performing telehealth visits in a clinic, nursing home, or correctional facility, "I feel a lot more comfortable if there’s another health care clinician there," Dr. Gupta said.

Clinicians may want to avoid a telepsychiatry visit for a patient in their own home for reasons of safety, reliability, and privacy. A longitudinal history with collateral information from friends or relatives can be helpful, but some subtle signs and body language may get missed over video, compared with an in-person visit. "Telepsychiatry can be a barrier at times. If there is substance abuse, we may not smell alcohol. Sometimes you may not see if the patient is using substances. You have to really reconsider if [there] is violence and self-injurious behavior," he said.

Discussing the pros and cons of telepsychiatry is important to obtaining patient consent. While consent requirements have relaxed under the COVID-19 pandemic, consent should ideally be obtained in writing, but can also be obtained verbally during a crisis. A plan should be developed for what will happen in the case of technology failure. "The patient should also know you’re maintaining privacy, you’re maintaining confidentiality, but there is a risk of hacking," Dr. Gupta said. "Those things can happen, [and] there are no guarantees."

If a patient is uncomfortable after beginning telepsychiatry, moving to in-person visits is also an option. "Many times, I do that if I’m not getting a good handle on things," Dr. Gupta said. Situations where patients insist on in-patient visits over telepsychiatry are rare in his experience, Dr. Gupta noted, and are usually the result of the patient being unfamiliar with the technology. In cases where a patient cannot be talked through a technology barrier, visits can be done in the clinic while taking proper precautions.

"If it is a first-time visit, then I do it in the clinic," Dr. Gupta said. "They come in, they have a face mask, and we use our group therapy room. The patients sit in a social-distanced fashion. But then, you document why you did this in-person visit like that."

Documentation during COVID-19 also includes identifying the patient at the first visit, the nature of the visit (teleconference or other), parties present, referencing the pandemic, writing the location of the patient and the clinician, noting the patient’s satisfaction, evaluating the patient’s mental status, and recording what technology was used and any technical issues that were encountered.

Some populations of patients are better suited to telepsychiatry than others. It is more convenient for chronically psychiatrically ill patients in group homes and their staff to communicate through telepsychiatry, Dr. Gupta said. Consultation liaison in hospitals and emergency departments through telepsychiatry can limit the spread of infection, while increased access and convenience occurs as telepsychiatry is implemented in correctional facilities and nursing homes.

"What we are doing now, some of it is here to stay," Dr. Gupta said.

In situations where a patient needs to switch providers, clinicians should continue to follow that patient until his first patient visit with that new provider. It is also important to set boundaries and apply some level of formality to the telepsychiatry visit, which means seeing the patient in a secure location where he can speak freely and privately.

"The best practices are [to] maintain faith [and] fidelity of the psychiatric assessment," Dr. Gupta said. "Keep the trust and do your best to maintain patient privacy, because the privacy is not the same as it may be in a face-to-face session when you use televideo."

Global Academy and this news organization are owned by the same parent company.

Dr. Gupta reported no relevant financial disclosures. Dr. Nasrallah disclosed serving as a consultant for and on the speakers bureaus of several pharmaceutical companies, including Alkermes, Janssen, and Lundbeck. He also disclosed serving on the speakers bureau of Otsuka.

SOURCE: Nasrallah HA and Gupta S. Focus on Neuropsychiatry. Live bonus presentation. 2020 Jul 8.

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