Roseann Bennett, LFMT, Looks at the Future of Therapy: Is Telemedicine Taking Over?

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As co-founder of the Center for Treatment and Assessment, a nonprofit mental health agency in Hackettstown, New Jersey, Roseann Bennett has dedicated her life to helping those in need.

Bennett holds an MA and Ed.S. in marriage and family therapy from Seton Hall University. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and has post master’s certification from the REACH Institute in cognitive behavior therapy. She’s also a Certified Clinical Trauma Professional and a Certified Child and Adolescent Trauma Professional.

The Center for Treatment and Assessment is a project Bennett is passionate about, and it took several years of hard work and perseverance to make it a success. She and her partner, Dr. Todd Bennett, are committed to helping families and individuals receive the mental health they need, regardless of insurance or financial means.

As an entrepreneur and dedicated caregiver, Bennett is working tirelessly to change the way mental health therapy is viewed while also ensuring that it’s accessible for everyone.

With the recent completion of Mental Health Awareness Week, Bennett addresses a new trend in mental health therapy: telemedicine.

New advances in technology make it easier to talk to a therapist via email, text, and even Skype. Does this signal the end of face-to-face care?

While Roseann Bennett sees the advantages of telemedicine for some, she cautions against it being a complete replacement for live interaction with a therapist. In this article, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of telemedicine and reveal Bennett’s prediction on the portion of therapy will be virtual in the future.

Visit Roseann Bennett’s website here.

But First, what is Telemedicine?

The official definition of Telemedicine is, “the use of telecommunication and information technology to provide clinical health care from a distance.”

It comes in a variety of forms, from sending a picture of an allergic reaction to a physician to chatting online about tennis elbow and getting a prescription for pain. It allows patients and doctors to communicate with each other without having to be in the same room.

Early forms of telemedicine such as a telephone conversation have recently been supplemented by new technology like video conferencing, online chats and smartphone applications.

The First Documented Utilization of Telemedicine

Today we think of telemedicine as online chatting, apps and video conferencing. However, these are all 21st-century technologies, yet telemedicine has a history that goes back to the early 1900s. In Australia, remote locations without access to healthcare used two-way radios powered by bicycle pedals to communicate with the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia.

Pros of Telemedicine

In a world where it seems like everything is moving to a digital platform, it makes sense that healthcare would also evolve. It’s a logical evolution in many cases due to convenience, accessibility and even cost.

In this section, the pros of telemedicine will be covered, but keep in mind that there’s no shortcut to receiving quality care, and many of these pros have a corresponding tradeoff.

Convenience

Life is busy. Trying to find time to get to a doctor’s appointment while balancing work, kids, and life can be a challenge, to say the least. Some people prefer being able to schedule and attend a virtual appointment, eliminating the need to travel.

Waiting for an appointment time with a live doctor or therapist can also be an issue. Sometimes patients have to wait months to attend an appointment, while an online, virtual session could potentially be scheduled on the same day.

A Low-Cost Option

A virtual appointment is often less expensive than a physical visit. It’s not just travel expenses, either. Often, the cost of the visit itself is reduced. We see this often with online companies who have a stable of therapists and physicians on call to see patients. When a therapy visit in an urban area like New York City can cost around $200, it’s no wonder people are seeking alternatives.

As an aside, this was one of the key motivating factors for the Bennetts to create the Center for Treatment and Assessment. They want mental health care to be accessible for everyone.

There are other reasons for the low price for a “visit” as well, which will be discussed a bit later. For now, it’s important to note that even though telemedicine is often a lower cost healthcare solution, there can be a tradeoff that ultimately hurts the patient.

No Need to Travel

People in remote or isolated communities may not have access to care locally. Or, a patient may be immobile or unable to leave the house. In cases like these, they may not be able to receive care without the advent of telemedicine.

Ability to See a Specialist

Ability to see a specialist regardless of location. Unless a hands-on procedure is needed, now patients have the option to consult with a physician or therapist remotely, without having to travel across the globe to do so.

Promotes Field Learning

Medical professionals can use telemedicine cases to observe experts in their field, learn best practices, and enrich their overall knowledge.

Reduce the Spread of Infection

This is an advantage that doesn’t apply to mental health but is still considered a pro for telemedicine. Infectious diseases and parasites can be transmitted by patients to doctors, staff and other clinic patients. If a disease can be diagnosed and treated without the risk of spreading infection, that’s a big win for virtual medicine.

Cons of Telemedicine

While telemedicine is both necessary and a lifesaver for some in the field of medicine, receiving therapy, marriage and relationship counseling and other forms of psychological care virtually takes some of the humanity out of the equation.

Not having real-life human interaction may not yield the same results as in-person care, and there are other options to consider as well before dismissing a personal visit with your therapist as too costly or inconvenient.

Lack of Privacy

Despite a therapist or physician’s best efforts to keep your case history and files safe and secure, the reality is that data breaches happen all the time. One of the most famous instances of a widespread data leak was Target stores back in 2013. Credit card information of an estimated 110 million people was compromised with disastrous results.

While the Target example is certainly one of the most famous, personal information is illegally obtained by hackers on an alarmingly regular basis. Other companies with recent breaches include Uber, Yahoo, JP Morgan Chase, eBay, Sony’s PlayStation Network, just to name a few.

While you may think that your clinical history isn’t terribly interesting to hackers, remember that your online records may also contain your social security number, home address, and credit card numbers. With this information, it’s not difficult for unscrupulous individuals to commit identity theft, which can take years for the unsuspecting victim to recover from.

Increased Chance for Error

Not being able to see a patient in person means that the caregiver may not get the whole picture. This is true for both medical doctors and therapists. The challenge is obvious for the medical profession. The doctor may not see an image clearly enough or might not catch a relevant symptom if they don’t have visual access to the entire body.

In the case of a mental health therapist, the counselor won’t be able to observe body language or a change in vocal tone over text or online conversation.

It’s crucial to be able to treat the whole individual and not just a part. This is where telemedicine fails to live up to the hype because treatment and care are not delivered in person.

Reduced Ability to Develop Relationships

An online chat or video conferencing call cannot replicate the experience of interacting with someone in person. Anyone who’s tried online dating can likely attest to this. Even the most intimate phone conversations or video chats can’t replace a face-to-face connection. This example is probably best related to by someone who “connected” well with a prospective date virtually only to find that the chemistry was off in person.

Online counseling can have a similar consequence. A patient is not getting the full experience of interacting with a therapist.

Complicated Technology Can Compromise Care

Your physician, therapist or counselor is trained to help you get and stay well. They spent years in school to earn certifications and degrees to become the best in their field. However, unless they’ve also spent time becoming an expert in the technology needed to administer virtual care and counseling, the miracle of technology can instead be a hindrance.

Would you rather have your therapist listen to you with their full, undivided attention or fiddle with their equipment trying to make sure your face is on their screen?

Inconsistent Care Quality

Several startup companies have entered the mental health space to provide online counseling for patients in need. Many of these companies’ clients appreciate the flexible schedules and lower cost appointments. In turn, therapists find that online counseling is an effective way to supplement their income and work on their own schedule from the comfort of their own home.

However, patient complaints about these services are numerous in online forums. Patients have noted rushed and impersonal care, a lack of quality therapists and even being turned away from receiving help because they weren’t “qualified.” Imagine the damage that assessment would do to someone with a mental health disorder.

It’s Not a Substitute for Severe Mental Disorders

People who are suicidal or have a severe mental condition need in-person care, especially as they may be a danger to themselves or others. Online therapy may be a supplement to this care but cannot be a substitute. This opinion is shared unanimously by online mental health providers.

Given this opinion by the providers, it naturally proves that while telemedicine has a place in this field of healthcare, it’s still lacking in its ability to provide hands-on care for those in need.

The Inability for a Pattern Interrupt

Patients dealing with either mental health challenges or relationship or family issues could benefit greatly by talking with someone outside of their home or their regular environment.

For example, imagine a married couple that argues constantly. Maybe they tend to have their biggest conflicts at the end of the day in the kitchen while cooking dinner or on the sofa before bed. If they “attend” their marriage counseling appointment in that same environment, doesn’t it seem more likely that their environment will trigger familiar responses?

However, by attending their appointment in a neutral environment away from their everyday routine, they have a better chance of gaining a new perspective, achieving a breakthrough and maintaining a more open mind.

Some Forms of Mental Health Therapy Can’t be Administered Online

There are a handful of therapeutic approaches that are nearly impossible to conduct online and require in-person assessment and treatment. Some of these include music and play therapy, animal-assisted psychotherapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR).

Conclusion

Roseann Bennett has gone on record to say that therapy is a blend of both intervention, connections, and relationships. You can’t administer an intervention effectively without the relationship. She goes on to say, “telemedicine is great for those who otherwise can’t leave their home or who are isolated geographically. Barring these conditions, I actually think people will continue to see a therapist, in person. I could be wrong, but some experiences are simply better in the flesh.”

Only time will tell to see if Bennett’s predictions are correct.

Follow Roseann on LinkedIn and Twitter to stay up to date on the ever evolving field of therapy.

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