Scheduled telepsychiatry sessions can lead to a more manageable life. Emergency telepsychiatry could save it. The video conferencing-hosted psychiatry method can bring a person in instant face-to-face contact with a trusted medical professional anywhere and at just the right time.
Remote psychiatry has the potential to be used within an established patient-psychiatrist relationship or deployed by emergency responders in times of conflict or crisis. The only caveat may seem obvious, but it’s still crucial: it has to work. Telepsychiatry’s effectiveness is critical and will make all the difference in determining if this method of delivering psychiatric help is truly feasible. The question is whether or not a virtual, remote service can be as effective as an in-person psychiatric assessment or treatment.
Recent research from Norway suggests telepsychiatry can indeed become an effective form of mental health intervention.
A Digital Safety Net
Medical professionals in the north of Norway have an extra dimension of difficulty in their practice. The geographical area they service is vast and sparsely populated. The remote nature of scattered communities across the north means it is not possible to provide each town with state-of-the-art emergency or specialized medical services. Just as we’ve seen in remote communities in the UK (as with orthopedic telemedicine on the Isle of Lewis) and in the U.S. (as with telemedicine in Texas), medical professionals have sought video conferencing solutions to their delivery dilemma.
Professionals from the Norwegian Center of E-health Research established project Videocare to link disparate communities with psychiatric specialists through their local family doctors. The resulting network makes six centrally located psychiatrists available 24/7 to potential patients all across Norway’s north.
The results from the study showed that the video network could act as a type of digital “safety net” that empowered remote medical practitioners to employ psychiatric services where otherwise they wouldn’t or couldn’t. In non-critical situations, it expanded patient treatment options and made them feel more involved in their own diagnosis and treatment. In emergency situations, it allowed for quicker, more accurate interventions.
Overall, the telepsychiatrist service was described as “useful,” which is certainly a positive reaction but also far from a resounding endorsement of its potential. Elsewhere, however, delivering medical services by video conference has received more enthusiastic support.
As Effective As an In-Person Visit
Mental health services more readily align with digital delivery than most fields of medicine. Diagnoses can largely be performed through observation and conversation, prescriptions can be made online and delivered directly to pharmacies, and treatments seldom require physical contact.
As a result, several instances in which mental health services were deployed online have been found to work just as well as the traditional in-person method. Two separate studies into the treatment of addiction found that virtual intervention was as effective as clinic-operated services. Likewise, remote mental health assessments are already being used in schools to test for potential learning impairments such as ADHD. And research published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that treatments such as cognitive behavior therapy and exposure and response prevention can be as effectively delivered over a video call as they can in person.
This kind of research, plus recent trials to implement online mental health support programs at colleges and to provide PTSD evaluation by teletherapy strongly suggest there is a safe, effective future ahead for telepsychiatry. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association has stated that telepsychiatry can be especially effective in the ADHD and PTSD fields mentioned above.
That’s great news, because the potential outcomes range from better access to psychiatric services to life-saving emergency responses.
Telepsychiatry’s Effectiveness As Emergency Response
The first application for telepsychiatry is simply to make psychiatric treatment more accessible. Just as video calling lets you attend business meetings or make social connections regardless of where you are in the world, so too can it offer instant mental health support. Removing the need to attend a clinician’s office in-person cuts out travel time, and the availability of video calling via smartphone means that any private location where the patient feels comfortable is an appropriate one. Busy patients can schedule important support sessions during their lunch break, without the worry of having to leave the office. The service is notionally the same whether it’s provided via a video link or in person, as long as the patient can find enough time and space to relax and focus.
The second application of telepsychiatry is unscheduled, emergency treatment. Here the mobility and 24-hour availability of a service like the one attempted in Norway becomes important. With emergency telepsychiatry, a patient experiencing a mental health crisis can reach out to their psychiatrist immediately, as long as the proper network is in place. These video calls provide both a calming voice and an educated observer to help the patient through their situation.
On a larger scale, telepsychiatry could be used by emergency responders to assess the motivations of individuals at risk to themselves or others–imagine a psychiatrist or behavioral health expert working to help someone considering suicide or talking police through a hostage or active shooter situation. Whether through a direct smartphone connection to an individual or as a remote observer communicating with on-site responders, the expertise of a virtual psychiatrist could have life-saving outcomes. If telepsychiatry becomes a proven, effective tool for mental health intervention, it could make a major contribution to the health and safety of many.