Therapy via teleconferencing is as good as in-person


Teleconferencing has become a greater part of life since COVID-19. We’re all using Zoom and Teams and Skype and countless others to stay in contact.  

Whilst I’m noting some return to life as usual, as restrictions lessen, I think these technologies will remain an important part of our lives. Some things work well via these channels. For example, I can run after-hours sessions on Mental Fitness and Studyology using Collaborate, which allows more students to attend and to do so in their own homes.  

One area where I think we’ll continue to use these platforms is healthcare 👩‍⚕️ In my field (psychology) there has been an extension to allow private practitioners to use telehealth appointments until the end of the year. That is being accompanied by the emergence of digital services looking to provide more seamless access to telehealth psychology (e.g. For doctors, it is looking like telehealth might become a permanent option. Here at the counselling service, we have used and continue to use telephone and Skype appointments for those students who can’t get to an in-person appointment (for whatever reason).  

Whilst telehealth boomed during COVID-19 because of needing to self-isolate, it will continue to thrive (I believe) because it provides easier access for many people to health and mental health services. Those living rural and remote. Those with health conditions that make travel difficult. Those in self-isolation. There are many reasons why a person might not be able to attend a face-to-face appointment but can check in via telehealth. 

The increased use of telehealth for mental health/ counselling appointments does raise the question as to whether telehealth appointments are as clinically beneficial as in-person appointments. I’ve heard both clinicians and clients express concerns that telehealth appointments aren’t as therapeutic. Certainly I’ll admit to there being something uniquely personal and safe and contained about seeing someone in person. 

But is it actually the case that telehealth counselling/mental health appointments are less therapeutic?

That is the question that Batastinit et al. tried to answer in their research paper “Are videoconferenced mental and behavioral health services just as good as in-person? A meta-analysis of a fast-growing practice”.

They scanned the literature to find studies that directly compared the provision of therapeutic or assessment services delivered via VCT (videoconference technology) versus in-person. 57 studies met the criteria.  

They aggregated the outcomes across those different studies using meta-analytic techniques. This allowed them to generate a numerical measurement of the difference in outcomes for those receiving their treatment via VCT, versus those receiving their treatment in-person. 

So what did they find?

What they found was, based on current research in the field, VCT and in-person mental health treatment and assessment produce similar therapeutic benefits. That is, there were no reliable differences between those getting their mental health treatment via telehealth versus those attending sessions in-person. Check out the article if you want to learn a bit more about some of their sub-findings including the curious possibility that women might respond better to VCT than men? 

To be clear, just because it seems that therapy delivered via VCT and in-person lead to similar outcomes, it doesn’t mean they would feel the same. It is a very different experience to see a therapist or counsellor in-person versus via telehealth. But whilst you lose some things (capacity to read body language as easily), you gain in other areas (being able to share and collaborate on digital resources – videos, files etc). This study suggests that overall, the benefit of engaging with mental health services remains. 

The implications of this for students here at Flinders is relatively simple. If you’ve been delaying or avoiding seeking care from the counselling service because you aren’t on the Bedford Park Campus (and can’t attend in-person appointments), it is valuable to know that accessing counselling via other means (telephone, Skype) might still have a lot of therapeutic value ☎💻

This joins a growing body of evidence that suggests obtaining mental health care via avenues other than face-to-face can be incredibly beneficial. To learn more about some of the different ways that people can access mental health supports, see our Digital resources for your mental health document.

The broader takeaway message is that help can come in forms that we’re initially unsure of, but which can still be very beneficial. As far as telehealth goes, I see the delivery of counselling and therapy via telehealth as only getting better over time as the quality of the cameras/ microphones/ computers that we use, and the robustness of landline and mobile internet connections improves. I can easily imagine a time where it is commonplace to connect with therapists via these digital channels. 

Until next time, take care…

Dr G

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eMental Health Resources Health Information Mental Health Research Digest

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