Telehealth Should Become a Permanent Option
Around the second week of March 2020, I arrived at work and was told that one of my afternoon clients would be a Zoom meeting because he had to quarantine. It was the first time I’d heard of Zoom and quarantine. I’d never done telehealth before, and the idea of it scared me. Would it be HIPPA compliant? Would the clients be accepting of it, or would they give up on therapy? Would the therapy be as effective?
Initially some clients shied away from telehealth because they thought quarantine would only last a few weeks and in-person appointments would resume. However, when it became evident that there was no end in sight of Covid-19, most of my clients embraced the Zoom calls. Telehealth has been commonplace in the past year now, and the results are exciting.
Research is showing that it’s as effective as in-person therapy, and it has many advantages in the areas of convenience, continuity and consistency, and improvement in quality of life for therapists like me, who used to have a two-hour commute to work each day. Transportation used to be a barrier to getting rural, low-income, West Virginia children to therapy. With telehealth, this is no longer an issue. Inclement weather and bad roads no longer mean a full day of canceled therapy appointments.
There is less missed work and school. Parents don’t have to leave work for their children’s therapy appointments. They can log on at the beginning of session and provide the therapist an update while their child is in the virtual waiting room. Children don’t have to miss school for therapy. Those on e-learning can schedule their sessions around conferences. Those who have returned to in-person school have been permitted to go to the counselor’s office to attend their telehealth sessions. If the therapist, the parent, or the child has a minor but contagious virus, they can still safely attend therapy.
College students, who used to have to change therapists when they went away to school, are now able to continue with their regular therapist via telehealth. I work in the office in Charleston or my home office in Fayette County, but I am still able to work with college students at Marshall, Sheppard, and West Virginia Universities. The students appreciate the continuity because it is often difficult to get in with over-burdened on-campus therapy centers. Students also feel relief at getting to stay with a familiar therapist while heading off for new adventures at college. As one of my clients put it, “I don’t want to start over with someone else. You know me.”
I have noticed that many of my clients with ADHD, autism, and anxiety work better in telehealth appointments than they did in-person. This is likely because they feel comfortable and less distracted in their own environments. Telehealth cuts out the common sensory issues that clients with ADHD and autism struggle with tolerating in a clinical setting.
Another benefit of telehealth is that it can follow the child. As long as there is a quiet, confidential space for the child to attend the session, it doesn’t matter if the child is at Mom’s house, Dad’s house, a grandparent’s house, or daycare. This cuts out the need for school-aged children to miss appointments in the summer, a time when many of them may have to stay in another town or county with a grandparent while their parents work. As long as they are in the same state where the therapist is licensed, they can attend telehealth on vacation, if desired.
As a therapist and parent of four, I hope telehealth is here to stay. I no longer have to miss a half day of work to attend meetings and appointments for my children. While I still hope to provide in-person therapy to younger children two days a week, seeing clients via telehealth three days a week has cut six hours off my weekly driving. This gives me more time working with clients and catching up on notes. It also gives me more time with my family.
Mental health practices everywhere will likely benefit from continuing to offer telehealth services. Telecommuting has also expanded professional development. I was able to attend a conference broadcast from a hospital in New York to learn techniques for helping children with Tourette’s syndrome. I will attend the social work conference virtually this year. Potentially, two therapists could share the same office if they each work in-office two days a week and at home the other three. This would maximize clinic space and the number of clients served.
For all the reasons previously mentioned, telehealth should become a permanent option. Insurance companies will benefit in the long-run due to reduction in illnesses when people are not exposed to each other as much in waiting rooms. Mental health and addiction services should be accessible in every corner of West Virginia, no matter how remote, and telehealth allows that to happen.