Mature woman having online consultation with psychotherapist at home on laptop

Exploring Virtual Therapy with Telehealth

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has become a staple in the medical field. What was once used in special circumstances is now a common practice. Nearly 80% of U.S. hospitals and physician offices are using telehealth to connect with patients remotely. It’s become particularly popular in the mental health space with the rise of telepsychiatry and virtual therapy.

What is telehealth?
Telehealth is a form of clinical health care that utilizes digital communications. It’s often used as an umbrella term to include telemedicine and virtual visits. It allows doctors to provide non-emergency services through various audio and video channels, including phones, computers and tablets. Telehealth is a flexible way for providers to manage individual care ranging from low-complexity problems to severe chronic issues.

What is telepsychiatry?
Telepsychiatry is a form of behavioral health care provided via telecommunications. A person can speak with a psychiatrist and receive a variety of mental health services including psychiatric evaluation, medication management, individual, family or group psychotherapy. It’s an interactive experience that can take place from the comfort of one’s own home.

What is the difference between mental health providers?
The first step to managing mental health is choosing the right professional. These are trained individuals with distinct skills that help them provide a specific type of care. Potential patients should understand the difference between a psychiatrist, psychologist and a therapist.

Psychiatrist: A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental disorders. They can distinguish underlying conditions that may impact both mental and physical health. As physicians, they prescribe and manage medications and work closely with a therapist on treatment goals. Other medical behavioral health specialists include nurse practitioners, physician assistants and clinical nurse specialists.

Psychologist: A psychologist can diagnose and recommend treatment such as talk therapy in an individual or group setting. Psychologists are required to have the minimum of a master’s degree. They are not medical doctors and cannot prescribe medication for patients.

Therapist: Therapist is a term for professionals who usually have a master’s degree and provide psychotherapy such as cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic and interpersonal. They diagnose disorders, provide emotional support, and help patients to better understand their feelings. Therapists cannot prescribe medication but do employ various techniques to improve coping skills.

Where can members access virtual mental health services?
Some organizations have a behavioral health number on the back of their insurance ID card. Members can call to discuss their needs and find the best mental health professional to fit their situation. In light of the global pandemic, telehealth is being used as a safety precaution for both patients and providers. Since it’s a benefit under most health plans, there are multiple options. Ask your provider what services are currently available. 

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About the Author: Dr. S. George Kipa, MD, is deputy chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Photo credit: mixetto

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