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Delivering mental health care virtually

Posted on: July 31, 2023

The delivery of mental health care services during the coronavirus pandemic presented an enormous challenge for providers and patients alike, requiring adaptations to how patients are cared for. Moreover, the pandemic’s legacy continues today — according to, around 14% of people in the UK with multiple mental health issues reported a new mental health diagnosis between May 2020 and January 2021

Virtual delivery of mental healthcare, also known as tele-psychiatry or teletherapy (i.e telehealth), has become an increasingly viable option for healthcare providers, especially with advancements in technology and increased access to reliable internet connections. However, like any form of healthcare delivery, virtual mental healthcare has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

What is the difference between telemedicine and telehealth?

The terms “telemedicine” and “telehealth” are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings, and their usage can vary depending on context and region. However, in general, the key difference lies in their scope and the types of services they encompass:

Telemedicine: This refers specifically to the remote delivery of clinical healthcare services by healthcare professionals to patients. This involves using telecommunications technology, such as video conferencing or secure messaging, to facilitate real-time interactions between healthcare providers and patients. Telemedicine is primarily focused on diagnosing, treating, and managing medical conditions. It includes services like virtual doctor consultations, remote monitoring of vital signs, and medical imaging consultations.

Telehealth: Telehealth, on the other hand, is a broader term that encompasses a wider range of healthcare services beyond just clinical care. It includes the use of technology to support and deliver health-related services and information, encompassing both clinical and non-clinical aspects of healthcare. In addition to telemedicine, telehealth services include health education, remote patient monitoring (RPM), health administration, and public health initiatives conducted through telecommunication methods.

In summary, telehealth is a more comprehensive term that includes not only telemedicine, but also various other health-related services and activities conducted remotely through technology.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that the usage of these terms can vary depending on the context and country. Some regions may use “telemedicine” as a catch-all term to cover all remote healthcare services, while others may use “telehealth” to describe the same concept. In any case, both telemedicine and telehealth play crucial roles in improving access to healthcare, especially in remote or underserved areas, and they offer various benefits in terms of convenience, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness.

What are the advantages to delivering mental health care virtually?

Easy access: One of the most significant advantages is improved access to mental healthcare, particularly for individuals living in remote areas, those with limited mobility, or those who face transportation barriers. Using healthcare apps, video consultations/virtual visits, online counselling, and follow-up video calls, mental health treatment can be accessed from the comfort of one’s home, eliminating the need for travel.

Convenience and flexibility: Virtual mental healthcare offers greater convenience and flexibility in scheduling appointments. They reduce time spent on commuting and waiting rooms, allowing individuals to access therapy services at a time and place that suits them best. This can be particularly beneficial for individuals with busy schedules or those who live in urban or rural areas with long wait times for in-person services.

Reduced stigma: Some people may feel more comfortable seeking mental healthcare remotely, as it provides a level of anonymity and reduces the potential stigma associated with visiting a mental health clinic or therapist’s office. This anonymity can encourage more individuals to seek help for their mental health conditions.

Continuity of care: Virtual mental health services can ensure continuity of care, especially for individuals who travel frequently or relocate. It allows patients to maintain their therapeutic relationship with a mental health professional regardless of their physical location.

What are the biggest disadvantages to delivering mental health care virtually?

  • Technical difficulties: The reliance on technology for virtual mental healthcare can introduce technical difficulties, such as poor internet connections, audio or video lag, or compatibility issues with different devices. These technical problems can disrupt the flow of therapy sessions or hinder effective communication between the mental health professional and the patient.
  • Limited non-verbal cues: Unlike in-person therapy, virtual sessions may lack some of the non-verbal cues that are crucial for effective communication and understanding in face-to-face interactions. Certain aspects of body language and subtle facial expressions might be missed or distorted, potentially affecting the accuracy of diagnosis and treatment (i.e., possible interventions).
  • Lack of personal connection: For some individuals, the absence of in-person interaction may diminish the sense of personal connection and trust with the mental health professional. Building rapport and therapeutic alliance can be more challenging through a virtual platform, which could potentially impact treatment outcomes. 
  • Privacy and security concerns: The use of technology and online platforms for virtual mental healthcare raises concerns about privacy and data security. It is crucial for both providers and patients to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place to protect sensitive personal information.

It’s important to note that virtual mental health treatment is not a one-size-fits-all solution and may not be suitable for everyone. The decision to pursue virtual mental healthcare should be made in collaboration with a healthcare professional, considering individual circumstances, personal wellness, and preferences.

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The study of psychology is dynamic and ever-evolving, and new insights into the mind-body connection and how it affects our wellbeing pose ongoing challenges to how we view ourselves. Whether it’s the need for society to talk about mental health issues or the impact of complex-PTSD on frontline workers during the global pandemic, mental health is at the top of the agenda in many areas of society.

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