Telemedicine is having a moment. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the best place to receive care—including treatment for mental health conditions—is often in the comfort of your own home.
But telemedicine for mental health isn’t new. And for people who may have a hard time getting to their clinician’s office under normal circumstances, the shift to virtual care is likely a welcome one.
“Within three days of shutdown orders due to COVID-19, we had converted our mainly in-office clinic to video and phone visits,” says Peter Yellowlees, MD, a professor of psychiatry and chief wellness officer at UC Davis Health. “Patients really like it.”
The pandemic may have shut down day-to-day routines, Dr. Yellowlees says. But for patients dealing with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or any number of mental health conditions, it didn’t shut down the need for treatment or support.
Even young patients and their parents are fans of telemedicine, says Amy Edgar, APRN, a nurse practitioner and founder of the Children’s Integrated Center for Success in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“We’ve been using virtual delivery well before the pandemic for some patients, so we were ready and knew the best elements of a virtual visit,” Edgar says.
If your clinician offers telemedicine services for mental health, here’s a peek at what you can expect, plus ways to make the most of these phone or video visits.
You Can Expect a More Convenient Session
All you need to do is be ready to join the call or video chat at the scheduled time. That means no need to block out travel time to get to and from your appointment. No need to sit in a waiting room.
You’ll arrive at your appointment in a more positive frame of mind, Dr. Yellowlees says, simply because you haven’t had to jump through a lot of hoops to get into the office.
“Patients find the convenience—and the time and cost savings—very positive,” says Dr. Yellowlees, a pioneer in telepsychiatry who has been conducting virtual sessions with patients since 1991.
“I have families already telling me that they never want to go back to office appointments,” Edgar says. And she understands why.
“If you think about what impacts families to follow through with a treatment plan for their child, one of the things we hear often is that they have a hard time making their follow-up appointments,” Edgar says. “It’s finding and paying for transportation. It’s taking time off of work or school. There are a lot of barriers for families, and that’s a tough thing to take on an ongoing basis.”
You Can Expect a More Relaxed Environment
No matter how fluffy the pillows, offices and clinics may have a formal, serious look that some patients may find intimidating. With video visits, you can speak to your clinician while sitting in your favorite chair and surrounded by objects that bring you comfort.
“With telemedicine, you and your doctor are meeting on the same grounds—video—rather than having to come to the other’s office,” Dr. Yellowlees says. This allows for a slightly more equal relationship.
“There’s a lot of evidence that you can have more intimate conversations and talk about particularly difficult topics more easily on video than you often can in person until you get to know the other person well,” he says. Some people may find it easier to discuss abuse and trauma, for example, over video.
Even when the subject matter isn’t as heavy, Edgar says video visits tend to be more engaging for patients—and more enlightening for clinicians.
“I’ll ask kids to show me their bedroom, pets, or favorite things. I get to see their world, and I don’t ever have that opportunity in the office,” Edgar says.
She also puts in extra effort to help her young patients feel at ease. For example, she often wears a crown and holds a magic wand when she’s meeting young kids, who typically respond with excitement and wonder.
“And for adolescents, I’ve had better and more engaged sessions in this venue than having them come into my office,” Edgar says. “They’re in their own space, and they’re comfortable, so the quality of interaction is so much better.”
You Can Expect a High Level of Care
To be clear, telemedicine for mental health is not “the next best thing” to an in-office appointment. Patients can and should expect the same level of care when they’re meeting with their clinician by phone or video as they do face-to-face, according to both Dr. Yellowlees and Edgar.
For example, you and your clinician will continue to set goals and have an agenda for each session. Your clinician will take notes and keep your medical record updated. With a few exceptions based on federal and state rules, your clinician is also able to prescribe new medications and order refills.
If your clinician recommends pharmacogenetic (PGx) testing to help personalize your medication plan, you can do it in the comfort of your home with Genomind’s PGx test. Genomind uniquely offers express overnight shipping to and from your home with complimentary pickup.
Genomind’s test, which requires a prescription, looks at 24 genes related to mental health treatment. It provides guidance across 10+ mental health conditions and 130+ medications to help your clinician determine:
- Which medications may be more likely to be effective
- Which medications may have side effects
- How you metabolize medications for personalized dosing guidance
Once you receive your test kit, follow the instructions to take a cheek swab, and use the return packet to send it to the lab. In three business days or less, your clinician will get the results to help inform their treatment decisions. Learn about Genomind’s solution offerings.
You Can Expect Telemedicine to Become More Common
There’s a lot we still don’t know about the long-term impact of COVID-19, but many health experts agree that telemedicine will likely gain popularity.
For people with mental health conditions, the good news is the American Psychiatric Association (APA) supports the use of telemedicine. According to the APA, telepsychiatry is especially useful in the treatment of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“Telemedicine is so patient-friendly,” says Dr. Yellowlees, adding that he’d be surprised if mental healthcare goes back to the way it was before any of us had ever heard of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19.
“We’re not just at a tipping point in terms of how patients and providers interact—I think we’re over the cliff,” he says. “It’s another choice that makes life easier for patients. This is going to be the new normal going forward.”
4 Steps to Prepare for Your First Telemedicine Appointment
Whether you’re due for a follow-up with your clinician or seeking treatment for the first time, here are a few ways to get the most out of your virtual visit.
Step #1: Check with Your Health Insurance
Every health insurance plan may have its own set of rules and procedures for telemedicine coverage, and rules and procedures may change. If you have health insurance, check your plan’s website or call customer service to see what’s available to you.
If you don’t have health insurance, you can find treatment options and other resources at samhsa.gov. As always, if you’re experiencing an emergency, call 911 for immediate help. You can also find urgent support from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Lifeline Chat.
Step #2: Set Up Your Gear
When you schedule the appointment, get specifics on how you’ll be connecting. Some clinicians will ask you to go through a patient portal, in which case you’ll probably need to create an account and know your password.
Others may want you to use an app or simply turn on a video chat service, such as Zoom. Ask if there’s anything you need to download in advance.
Whatever the method, it’s best to figure out the mechanics of how the appointment will go before your appointment time arrives. Plus, make sure the device you’ll be using is charged.
Step #3: Find a Quiet Place to Talk
If your house is bustling with activity, consider taking the call outside or even in your parked car, Dr. Yellowlees suggests. And make sure your connection is strong. There’s nothing like a bad connection to ruin a productive session.
Step #4: Ask Questions
Telemedicine may not be new, but it may be new to you. Let your clinician know if you have any questions or concerns about this meeting format. After all, as with any treatment, the main goal is to help you.
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