The flexible nature of these services benefit clients and providers, but the onus is on psychologists to make sure they comply with federal and state laws
It was an ad on Facebook that first prompted Los Alamitos, California, clinical psychologist Nina Barlevy, PsyD, to visit the online therapy website BetterHelp.com. The company promoted affordable online counseling, available anytime and anywhere, and Barlevy thought joining their panel of therapists might be a great way to supplement her income during slow times in her private practice.
"It looked like a good way to expand my practice here and there in my free time, if I was already going to be on my computer in the evenings or on my days off anyway," Barlevy says.
She went through Better Help's rigorous application process, which included verifying that she was licensed, and began communicating with users in her state via the site's secure messaging platform. The site also offers members the option to schedule live video and phone sessions with their therapists, though Barlevy worked mainly with clients via the site's unlimited asynchronous messaging service. They messaged her about many of the same issues her face-to-face therapy clients were dealing with, including stress, anxiety and relationship issues, among other concerns, and she messaged them back with questions, feedback, insights and guidance. They benefited from easier access to therapy, which particularly helps people in rural areas who may not be able to drive an hour each way to see a therapist face-to-face.
"[It is] a whole lot more appealing to be able to sit at your computer and type back and forth with someone," Barlevy says.
Telepsychology, be it by phone, webcam, email or text message, has been around in one form or another for more than 20 years, used most often by members of the military. But the explosion of smartphone users has created new opportunities for app-based companies to offer more accessible and affordable therapy.
Still, such online therapy creates concerns over patient privacy, as well as legal and ethical issues, including interjurisdictional practice issues, for providers who contract to work for these companies, which may not share the same code of conduct and commitment to do no harm, says Deborah Baker, JD, director of legal and regulatory policy in APA's Practice Directorate. Many of these online therapy companies also are not run by psychologists.
"When you're an individual provider, you can't assume that a business is going to be looking out for your best interest, so you really have to dig a little deeper and check in with your professional association and malpractice carrier to make sure you're complying with the law and with the APA Ethics Code."
Benefits for patients and therapists
The growth in online therapy companies—nearly a dozen have launched in the last several years—doesn't surprise Lindsay Henderson, PsyD, assistant director of psychological services at Boston-based telehealth company American Well, which offers therapy through video conferencing. The ease and convenience of scheduling a therapy appointment online and talking with a therapist from the privacy of one's own home—or wherever one may be—is a huge draw for consumers, many of whom are seeking therapy for the first time in their lives, she says.
American Well's online platform helps "normalize mental health care, especially among generations now who are so accustomed to interacting with people using technology," Henderson adds. "It just eliminates so many barriers."
Research studies, many of which are listed in bibliography format by the Telemental Health Institute, also indicate that telemental health is equivalent to face-to-face care in various settings and an acceptable alternative. While much of the research tests only the use of videoconferencing as the telehealth modality, a few studies, including two published in 2013, have also shown that asynchronous messaging therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy (Journal of Affective Disorders and Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Networking).
Even more encouraging is that when digital interventions are positive, effective experiences for patients, they may go on to seek face-to-face therapy, says Megan Jones, PsyD, adjunct clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. A study she led found that college students who needed a higher level of care for eating disorders were more likely to seek it out after participating in a digital body-image program and working with a coach online via asynchronous messaging through the online therapy company Lantern (Journal of American College Health, 2014).
"It can really be a nice first step in treatment for someone who needs more intensive therapy," says Jones, who also serves as chief science officer at Lantern.
Mental health professionals can also reap benefits from joining online care teams. In addition to supplementing practitioners' incomes with new patients, providing online therapy can help them maintain a better work-life balance, Henderson says.
"From the provider perspective, the flexibility of practicing telemental health fits so well into my life and allows me to better meet my patients' needs," she says. "I'm not at a point in my life where I want to be going to an office at 8:30 in the evening, but I will happily go to my home office, lock the door and see a patient at that time."
Employment at online therapy companies isn't limited to providing therapy to clients, either. Opportunities abound and will continue to grow in supervisory and training roles as well as full-time research positions at these mental health technology companies, Jones says.
But tread carefully
Of course, online care is not for every patient or practitioner. Clients with more serious mental illnesses or addictions likely need more treatment than digital therapy can provide. And some clinicians may find certain telehealth modalities difficult, says Barlevy.
"I'm such a people person, so it was tough for me to feel a real connection when I was just messaging with people," she says. "Plus a lot of people just stopped responding, and I felt like there wasn't enough time to really build a relationship. It actually turned out to be more difficult than I imagined."
In addition, some online therapy companies don't have clear guidelines for handling risky situations, such as a patient who may seem suicidal in his or her messaging responses, says Lynn Bufka, PhD, associate executive director for practice research and policy at APA.
While some apps do report that they use a member's IP address to determine their exact location and send police if a therapist is concerned about a member's safety, it's often more difficult to determine a patient's level of risk via a messaging app than face-to-face with them in a therapy room.
"If you're using an online therapy platform and you ask someone if they're suicidal and they say no, is that it?" Bufka says. "Those kinds of clinical issues come up, which is why I think most psychologists seem to feel much more comfortable integrating technology into an ongoing face-to-face or video/teleconferencing relationship versus using only messaging."
Practitioners also need to do their due diligence when it comes to making sure their decision to contract with an online therapy company doesn't run afoul of complying with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountibility Act (HIPAA), state licensing laws and other legal and ethical practices, Baker says. In addition, platforms that allow patients to connect anonymously with therapists may create legal and ethical issues for psychologists.
"My concern is that some of these models are probably start-ups that are launched by people in technology, who have good intentions but haven't fully investigated all the nuances in what's involved in providing health services," she says. "Do they fully understand HIPAA/HITECH, any related state laws and patient confidentiality policies? Do they fully understand that psychologists cannot simply provide services to patients anywhere in the United States?"
Psychologists interested in joining these companies should investigate those issues, and also find out exactly where patients are located if they are providing them therapy services to ensure that they are authorized to do so. Such issues were part of the reason Columbia, South Carolina, clinical psychologist Shawna Kirby, PhD, decided to part ways with an online therapy company she worked for in 2015. After several months as a contracted therapist, she terminated the agreement, due to a series of ethical concerns she had over how the company dealt with interjurisdictional practice issues, consumer privacy, informed consent and therapy termination. When she brought her concerns to the company's clinical director and owners, none of whom are psychologists, she says they brushed off her concerns, and then eventually blocked her from messaging with her clients. "It all seemed more financially driven, rather than care driven," she says.
That's why it's so important that psychologists play a leadership role at mental health technology companies, Jones says.
"These companies need our knowledge and competency at the heart of their decision-making process because we have a very different framework and we understand the responsibilities that we have to users in a very different way than you do if you come from a technology background," she says. "I want to have a peer at any company like ours."
By Amy Novotney
- This article was originally published in the February 2017 Monitor on Psychology