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Monday, May 23, 2011

Distance Therapy Comes of Age: Article Review

John D. Gavazzi, PsyD ABPP
Ethics Chair

A friend recommended that I read Distance Therapy Comes of Age by Robert Epstein in the magazine Scientific American Mind.  While the title seemed appealing, the article treats telehealth and e-therapy quite superficially.  There is little in the way of empirical support for conclusions made in the article.

The article indicates that there is an "avalanche of evidence" supporting the efficacy of e-therapy.  I reviewed one of the sources for this article, "Current Directions in Videoconferencing Tele-Mental Health Research" by Richardson and others.  Here is one important quote from the article that undermines the overall conclusion of the article:

"Compared to symptom reduction and cost effectiveness, satisfaction is a simple variable to measure, and it is perceived to be a necessary first step for the development of good therapist-client relationships (Rees & Haythornthwaite, 2004). However a common weakness of tele-mental health research, particularly in small studies and novel demonstrations, has been to overemphasize patient satisfaction as being the same as clinical effectiveness. Furthermore, the majority of studies examining satisfaction with tele-mental health have typically used study-specific measures of this outcome, and the psychometric properties of these instruments are largely unknown. Finally, we do not know whether patient satisfaction with tele-mental health would remain as high in the presence of alternative mental health services, or if ratings of high satisfaction are a by-product of simply being pleased to receive any service at all."
Additionally, one of the "Fast Facts" in the article states "brief therapeutic communiques using mobile phones can help combat eating disorder, alcohol abuse, cigarette smoking and anxiety, among other problems."  The author cites research from Kristin Heron and Joshua Smyth to support the point; however, there is no reference given as to who published this research or where to find it.

There were some positive components to the article.  The first is a quote from Gerry Koocher, which states "the important thing is that you're practicing competently, no matter how you are delivering the therapy."  Koocher also made the important points that e-therapy may not be appropriate for everyone as well as the potential for fraud exists.

Psychologists need more definitive information and guidelines about telepsychology and e-therapy to practice at the highest level.

Fortunately, there is positive movement for psychologists interested in telehealth, e-therapy, and telepsychology.  The Committee for the Advancement of Psychology recently announced the formation of a new Task Force on Telepsychology.

We are pleased to announce the members of the newly formed Task Force on Telepsychology.  The Task Force members represent the American Psychological Association (APA), the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB), and the American Psychological Association Insurance Trust (APAIT).  The purpose of the Task Force will be to develop telepsychology guidelines that will provide direction to psychologists as they navigate the numerous ethical, regulatory, legal and practice issues that arise in their use of technology in the delivery of psychological services.  We want to acknowledge and thank these new members for their leadership and commitment to participate in this multi-organizational Task Force.
Psychologists will need to rely on credible sources of information before embarking in e-therapy and telepsychology.  Some interesting issues include informed consent, practicing across state lines, and the overall efficacy of telepsychology. 

This blog will update our readers on recent research about the effectiveness of telepsychology as well as any outcomes from the Task Force on Telepsychology.  Psychologists need to be informed on the ethical, legal, and competent practice of telepsychology.