One of the great ironies of modern telemedicine is that while having a physician’s phone number at our fingertips should lower the activation energy needed to set up appointments, we rarely make the time to do so. We tell ourselves that we’ll “set something up this week,” but the urgency of said task often falls to the wayside. This issue is even more true for treatment related to psychiatric and psychological issues, for which one must first decide that they’re ready to take the steps to start seeing a therapist (assuming the decision isn’t made for you).
It’s arguably more difficult to prioritize seeing a therapist even when we know we probably should because we can rationalize that whatever anxious or depressive mood we may be experiencing, for instance, will eventually pass, or that there are more pressing tasks like school, work, or family responsibilities that require our immediate attention. Perhaps the very idea of having to sit in someone’s office and face our thoughts and feelings brings on anxiety. Or maybe there’s just no feasible way for us to get from point A to point B because we live in a rural area with little access to reliable transportation to a mental health care center that’s hours away.
To see if these concerns could be addressed on a systematic level, The Duke Endowment gave funding to South Carolina’s Department of Mental Health in 2009 for a pilot study that “deployed” psychiatrists to rural parts of the state in an effort to offset the scarcity of hospital beds for psychiatric patients. Almost ten years later, the field of telepsychiatry has spread all over the country and is significantly reducing the burdens of time, stress, and cost of seeing therapists.
In addition to helping people who live in counties with reduced access to general and mental health care because of distance, even people who live in suburban and urban areas but who have difficulty reaching psychiatrists because of busy schedules can more directly and more quickly access a therapist for 30-minute to 1-hour-long sessions at a more convenient time. Some of these appointments can even be made outside of normal work hours so that people who work multiple jobs or whose jobs aren’t regular 9-5’s can still have the luxury of getting the care they need at a time that works for them.
Another issue with scheduling therapy appointments is that when we realize that we need to see a therapist, the next available slot may not be for another week or longer. Virtual appointments not only eliminate the need for such a long wait, but they also allow for coordination of care among multiple providers—therapists, primary care providers, and other specialists a patient might be seeing. “Conference calls,” or appointments set among multiple providers at once can be coordinated to reduce the amount of time a patient has to spend seeing doctors. This also improves communication among providers.
Finally, patients who are impeded from making physical appointments by severe anxiety and/or depression, a physical disability, or old age can have access to a provider from the comfort of their own home or a space where they would normally feel comfortable disclosing personal thoughts and feelings.
As advances in medical and mental healthcare continue to arise, opportunities for patients to have more direct, complete, and coordinated access to their mental health providers multiply. While no system is perfect, and telepsychiatry still has to deal with glitches like poor video and audio quality and limited efficacy in areas susceptible to power outages, the future looks bright for individuals looking to make time for therapy.