COVID-19: A guide to making telepsychiatry work


Another tip is to ask staff to perform a test session to work out the technical kinks before the first patient appointment. “They can make the connection and make sure there’s a video signal with adequate quality,” Dr. Shore said. Failing to conduct a test run can lead to spending several minutes of a session trying to help patients figure out how to make video conferencing work properly.

“You can spend a lot of time acting as IT support,” he said.

It is important to ensure that virtual visits are not interrupted by technical glitches, Daniel Bristow, MD, said in an interview. If possible, hardwire your laptop or computer to an ethernet cable, said Dr. Bristow, president of the Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association, the state’s branch of the APA. “This will lead to fewer fluctuations that you could see by using wifi,” said Dr. Bristow, who practices in Portland.

Some clinicians are surprised to learn that videoconferencing is a tool that can be used to treat patients with psychosis.

Dr. Andrew J. McLean, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

Dr. Andrew J. McLean

“Initially, I assumed that those with psychotic symptoms might struggle more. But I have been surprised at how well some patients have done,” said Andrew J. McLean, MD, MPH, clinical professor and chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

However, it might help to provide additional coaching to those patients, said Dr. Bristow. He offers a warning to these patients: “If you feel like you’re getting messages over the TV, my talking to you may make you feel worse.” However, “in every case, the patient was able to say, ‘I know you’re real.’ One patient even said: ‘I’ve heard these voices from my TV for years. But I know you’re a doctor, and you’re in an office trying to help me.’ ”

Dr. Shore thinks that video meetings have the potential to help psychiatrists and patients form better personal connections than in-person meetings. Patients with anxiety or PTSD, for example, “may feel safer since they’re in their own space, and they have a greater sense of control over the session than being in somebody’s office,” he said.

Dr. Khan agreed. “Some children, such as those with a significant trauma history or with significant anxiety, may feel more comfortable with this modality and may open up more during video sessions,” she said. In addition, “the distance that telepsychiatry provides may also enhance feelings of confidentiality and reduce potential stigma that may be associated with seeking mental health care.”

Dr. Katherine Nguyen Williams, University of California, San Diego

Dr. Katherine Nguyen Williams

When it comes to using videoconferencing to treat children, take advantage of interactive features that are available, said Katherine Nguyen Williams, PhD. Zoom’s HIPAA-compliant health care software, for example, offers a “share screen” capability. “It allows for easy interactive activities,” said Dr. Nguyen Williams, director of strategic development and clinical innovation at Rady Children’s Hospital’s department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. “Clinicians can play tic-tac-toe on the screen with the young patients, and they can work on cognitive-behavioral therapy worksheets together on the digital screen. Clinicians can even show a mindfulness video to the patient while actively coaching and giving feedback to the patient as they practice diaphragmatic breathing while viewing the video.

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