Once the fog lifts on a global pandemic that led to an explosion in telehealth visits in 2020, mental health experts expect virtual and in-person visits to merge to become a standard model of care in clinical psychiatry.
Hybrid care is the future, Peter Yellowlees, MBBS, MD , a professor of psychiatry and chief wellness officer at the University of California, Davis, said in an interview. “I’ve been working this way for several years – where all of my patients get to see me in person or online, or both.”
The model’s increasing popularity reflects a major shift toward virtual consults. Telemedicine offers safer, quicker, and less expensive alternatives, Steven Chan, MD, MBA, of Stanford (Calif.) University, said in an interview. “This continuity is essential to helping to reduce emergency room visits, reduce inpatient hospitalizations and readmissions, and improving adherence to treatment,” Dr. Chan said. State and federal regulators’ actions to lift certain licensing and prescribing restrictions and expand coverage made it easier for clinical psychiatrists to offer and get paid for these services.
The catch is that no one knows whether these easements will remain in place once COVID-19 recedes, ending the national public health emergency, Jay H. Shore, MD, MPH, chairperson of the American Psychiatric Association telepsychiatry committee , and professor and director of telemedicine programming at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora’s department of psychiatry, said in an interview. “These all temporarily changed during this time period, but we have no idea when they’re going to end or if they’re going to continue off of COVID. So now, there’s a lot of uncertainty.”
‘Suite of different technologies’
New freedoms to deliver telehealth care left some practices scrambling to adopt or refine technology. Once COVID-19 hit, “I can’t think of a psychiatrist or provider or institution that didn’t have to rapidly virtualize and do at least some video conferencing,” Dr. Shore said. This immediate shift signaled a key move toward hybrid patient-doctor relations. “It means you hold a relationship with your patients through multiple different mediums, email, portal, telephone, in person. It’s not just about in-person versus video, it’s about a suite of different technologies.”
Dr. Shore began practicing telehealth 20 years ago, long before the age of COVID. He’s since established rewarding relationships with patients he’s never met. “I’ve done everything from medical management to long-term psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, and I’ve been successful with different populations.”
Many nuances exist around matching the right patient with the right videoconferencing adaptation, Dr. Shore continued. However, “in general, the literature supports that you can get equal clinical outcomes with telehealth versus in-person treatment.”
‘I see their garden’
While some may eschew the idea of providing care over a virtual platform, other physicians see it as an insightful window into a person’s mental state. “I think some are actually quite surprised by how much good care you can give using video,” said Dr. Yellowlees. Unlike a phone conversation, video allows you to see a person’s home. “The beauty of a video is not just that you can see the person, you can also look around their home, and learn more about them.”