What Is Telemental Health: Benefits, Privacy and Pitfalls

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What Is Telemental Health?

The National Institute of Mental Health defines telemental health as “the use of telecommunications or videoconferencing technology to provide mental health services.” Telebehavioral healthcare refers to the process of observing behavior in a subject through online technologies. Telebehavioral health is considered a subgroup of telemental health. The US Department of Health and Human Services says online visits are a convenient way for mental and behavioral health providers to offer:

  • One-on-one and group therapy
  • Substance abuse counseling
  • medication management
  • Monitoring for anxiety and depression
  • Mental health screening

Telemental health services enable clinicians to reach more patients, such as people who live in rural areas, those working irregular hours and homebound patients, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Expanded access to online teletherapy during the pandemic may have inspired more adults to seek this type of care for the first time. Based on an analysis of private health insurance claims, Rand researchers found telemental health services provided to treat conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder increased 10 to 20 percent between January and December 2020.

According to a 2021 American Psychiatric Association survey, nearly 60 percent of adults reported they were open to using telemental health services, and 43 percent said they would continue using those services after the pandemic ended.

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What Are the Benefits of Telemental Health?

Kate Chard, a licensed psychologist and adjunct professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati, says patients “love the option” of telemental care because it offers more flexibility than in-person visits. They save time because they don’t need to drive to the therapist’s office, and they may feel more comfortable opening up when they’re able to do so from the comfort of home, she says.

And it’s not just the patients who enjoy the flexibility. Chard says one of the biggest trends she’s seen in telemental health is the number of providers who want to choose their hours and work from home. More than two-thirds of mental health facilities offer telehealth services, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“Technology helps us see patients more often” compared with in-person visits, Chard says, which can help some patients heal more quickly. “We’ve also found that PTSD patients are less likely to drop out of therapy when we use teletherapy.”

Chard adds, “One of the biggest benefits of telehealth for me is it increases the likelihood that the patient will show up for the appointment.” Research supports this idea: A study published in Psychiatric Quarterly concluded telehealth services reduce no-show rates, which benefits the provider from a fiscal standpoint. Missed appointments cost the US healthcare system an estimated $150 billion annually.