COVID-19: A guide to making telepsychiatry work

Changes prompted by social distancing could last beyond the pandemic


As the coronavirus pandemic persists, insurers and the federal government are making it easier for mental health professionals to deliver safe and effective psychiatric services to patients via Zoom, FaceTime, and other conferencing tools. Many psychiatrists, meanwhile, are embracing telepsychiatry for the first time – in some cases with urgency.

Dr. Jay H. Shore, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Telepsychiatry and director of telemedicine at the Helen & Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora

Dr. Jay H. Shore

Jay H. Shore, MD, MPH, said in an interview that mental health providers at his medical center have gone entirely virtual in recent weeks.

“The genie is out of the bottle on this,” said Dr. Shore, director of telemedicine at the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center and director of telemedicine programming for the department of psychiatry at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora. He thinks this is the beginning of a new era that will last beyond the pandemic. “There’s going to be a much wider and diffuse acceptance of telemedicine as we go forward,” he added.

Dr. Shore and several colleagues from across the country offered several tips about factors to consider while learning to use telepsychiatry as a treatment tool.

To start, Dr. Shore advised reviewing the American Psychiatric Association’s Telepsychiatry Practice Guidelines and its Telepsychiatry Toolkit, which include dozens of brief videos about topics such as room lighting and managing the content process.

Another resource is the joint APA–American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Telepsychiatry Toolkit, said Shabana Khan, MD, an assistant professor and director of telemedicine for the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University Langone Health.

One of the challenges is managing emergencies long distance. If a patient experiences a mental health emergency in a psychiatrist’s office, the clinician can call 911 or direct staff to seek help. “When they’re at their house,” said Dr. Shore, “it’s a little different.”

Staff members are not present at home offices, for example, and the patient might live in a different city and therefore have a different 911 system. “It’s important to know your protocol about how you plan to handle these emergencies before you start working with the patient,” Dr. Shore said.


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