Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, philosophy and health care

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

When Your Therapist Is Only a Click Away

By Jan Hoffman
The New York Times

THE event reminder on Melissa Weinblatt’s iPhone buzzed: 15 minutes till her shrink appointment.

She mixed herself a mojito, added a sprig of mint, put on her sunglasses and headed outside to her friend’s pool. Settling into a lounge chair, she tapped the Skype app on her phone. Hundreds of miles away, her face popped up on her therapist’s computer monitor; he smiled back on her phone’s screen.

She took a sip of her cocktail. The session began.

Ms. Weinblatt, a 30-year-old high school teacher in Oregon, used to be in treatment the conventional way — with face-to-face office appointments. Now, with her new doctor, she said: “I can have a Skype therapy session with my morning coffee or before a night on the town with the girls. I can take a break from shopping for a session. I took my doctor with me through three states this summer!”

And, she added, “I even e-mailed him that I was panicked about a first date, and he wrote back and said we could do a 20-minute mini-session.”

Since telepsychiatry was introduced decades ago, video conferencing has been an increasingly accepted way to reach patients in hospitals, prisons, veterans’ health care facilities and rural clinics — all supervised sites.

But today Skype, and encrypted digital software through third-party sites like CaliforniaLiveVisit.com, have made online private practice accessible for a broader swath of patients, including those who shun office treatment or who simply like the convenience of therapy on the fly.

One third-party online therapy site, Breakthrough.com, said it has signed up 900 psychiatristspsychologists, counselors and coaches in just two years. Another indication that online treatment is migrating into mainstream sensibility: “Web Therapy,” the Lisa Kudrow comedy that started online and pokes fun at three-minute webcam therapy sessions, moved to cable (Showtime) this summer.

“In three years, this will take off like a rocket,” said Eric A. Harris, a lawyer and psychologist who consults with the American Psychological Association Insurance Trust. “Everyone will have real-time audiovisual availability. There will be a group of true believers who will think that being in a room with a client is special and you can’t replicate that by remote involvement. But a lot of people, especially younger clinicians, will feel there is no basis for thinking this. Still, appropriate professional standards will have to be followed.”

The pragmatic benefits are obvious. “No parking necessary!” touts one online therapist. Some therapists charge less for sessions since they, too, can do it from home, saving on gas and office rent. Blizzards, broken legs and business trips no longer cancel appointments. The anxiety of shrink-less August could be, dare one say ... curable?

Ms. Weinblatt came to the approach through geographical necessity. When her therapist moved, she was apprehensive about transferring to the other psychologist in her small town, who would certainly know her prominent ex-boyfriend. So her therapist referred her to another doctor, whose practice was a day’s drive away. But he was willing to use Skype with long-distance patients. She was game.

Now she prefers these sessions to the old-fashioned kind.

But does knowing that your therapist is just a phone tap or mouse click away create a 21st-century version of shrink-neediness?

The entire story can be read here.
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