Shrinks turn to Skype

Shrinks turn to Skype

The event reminder on Melissa Weinblatt’s iPhone buzzed: 15 minutes till her shrink appointment.

She mixed herself a mojito, added a sprig of mint, put on her sunglasses and headed outside to her friend’s pool. Settling into a lounge chair, she tapped the Skype app on her phone.

Hundreds of miles away, her face popped up on her therapist’s computer monitor; he smiled back on her phone’s screen.

She took a sip of her cocktail. The session began. Weinblatt, a 30-year-old high school teacher in Oregon, used to be in treatment the conventional way — with face-to-face office appointments. Now, with her new doctor, she said: “I can have a Skype therapy session with my morning coffee or before a night on the town with the girls. I can take a break from shopping for a session. I took my doctor with me through three states this summer!”

Since telepsychiatry was introduced decades ago, video conferencing has been an increasingly accepted way to reach patients in hospitals, prisons, veterans’ health care facilities and rural clinics — all supervised sites.

But today Skype, and encrypted digital software through third-party sites like CaliforniaLiveVisit.com, have made online private practice accessible for a broader swath of patients, including those who shun office treatment or who simply like the convenience of therapy on the fly.

One third-party online therapy site, Breakthrough.com, said it has signed up 900 psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and coaches in just two years. Another indication that online treatment is migrating into mainstream sensibility: “Web Therapy,” the Lisa Kudrow comedy that started online and pokes fun at three-minute webcam therapy sessions, moved to cable (Showtime) this summer.

“In three years, this will take off like a rocket,” said Eric A. Harris, a lawyer and psychologist who consults with the American Psychological Association Insurance Trust. “Everyone will have real-time audiovisual availability. There will be a group of true believers who will think that being in a room with a client is special and you can’t replicate that by remote involvement. But a lot of people, especially younger clinicians, will feel there is no basis for thinking this. Still, appropriate professional standards will have to be followed.”

The pragmatic benefits are obvious. “No parking necessary!” touts one online therapist. Some therapists charge less for sessions since they, too, can do it from home, saving on gas and office rent. Blizzards, broken legs and business trips no longer cancel appointments. The anxiety of shrink-less August could be, dare one say ... curable?

Weinblatt came to the approach through geographical necessity. When her therapist moved, she was apprehensive about transferring to the other psychologist in her small town, who would certainly know her prominent ex-boyfriend. So her therapist referred her to another doctor, whose practice was a day’s drive away. But he was willing to use Skype with long-distance patients. She was game. Now she prefers these sessions to the old-fashioned kind.

The technology does have its speed bumps. The quirkiness of Internet connections can be an impediment. “You have to prepare vulnerable people for the possibility that just when they are saying something that’s difficult, the screen can go blank,” said DeeAnna Merz Nagel, a psychotherapist licensed in New Jersey and New York. “So I always say, ‘I will never disconnect from you online on purpose.’ You make arrangements ahead of time to call each other if that happens.”

Still, opportunities for exploitation, especially by those with sketchy credentials, are rife. Solo providers who hang out virtual shingles are a growing phenomenon. In the Wild Web West, one site sponsored a contest asking readers to post why they would seek therapy; the person with the most popular answer would receive six months of free treatment. When the blogosphere erupted with outrage from patients and professionals alike, the site quickly made the applications private.

Other questions abound. How should insurance reimburse online therapy? Is the therapist complying with licensing laws that govern practice in different states? Are videoconferencing sessions recorded? Hack-proof?

Another draw and danger of online therapy: anonymity. Many people avoid treatment for reasons of shame or privacy. Some online therapists do not require patients to fully identify themselves. What if those patients have breakdowns? How can the therapist get emergency help to an anonymous patient?

“A lot of patients start therapy and feel worse before they feel better,” noted Marlene M. Maheu, founder of the TeleMental Health Institute, which trains providers and who has served on task forces to address these questions. “It’s more complex than people imagine. A provider’s Web site may say, ‘I won’t deal with patients who are feeling suicidal.’ But it’s our job to assess patients, not to ask them to self-diagnose.” She practices online therapy, but advocates consumer protections and rigorous training of therapists.

Psychologists say certain conditions might be well-suited for treatment online, including agoraphobia, anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some doctors suggest that Internet addiction or other addictive behaviors could be treated through videoconferencing.

Others disagree. As one doctor said, “If I’m treating an alcoholic, I can’t smell his breath over Skype.” Therapists who have tried online therapy range from evangelizing standard-bearers, planting their stake in the new future, to those who, after a few sessions, have backed away.

Elaine Ducharme, a psychologist in Glastonbury, Conn., uses Skype with patients from her former Florida practice, but finds it disconcerting when a patient’s face becomes pixilated. Dr. Ducharme, who is licensed in both states, will not videoconference with a patient she has not met in person. She flies to Florida every three months for office visits with her Skype patients.

“There is definitely something important about bearing witness,” she said. “There is so much that happens in a room that I can’t see on Skype.” Dr. Heath Canfield, a psychiatrist in Colorado Springs, also uses Skype to continue therapy with some patients from his former West Coast practice. He is licensed in both locations. “If you’re doing therapy, pauses are important and telling, and Skype isn’t fast enough to keep up in real time,” Dr. Canfield said. He wears a headset.

“I want patients to know that their sound isn’t going through walls but into my ears. I speak into a microphone so they don’t feel like I’m shouting at the computer. It’s not the same as being there, but it’s better than nothing. And I wouldn’t treat people this way who are severely mentally ill.”

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