Psychologists adjust to the world with coronavirus

By Kathy Lynn Gray, Associate Editor
April 18, 2020 - Last updated: May 14, 2020


teletherapyAs the coronavirus sweeps across the country, clinical psychologists are struggling with a very practical question: Should they continue to see patients face to face?

Many, such as one neuropsychologist in Rock Hill, N.Y., are choosing to conduct all of their therapy online for the next few weeks rather than seeing patients in an office setting.

And at the Telebehavioral Health Institute in California, “the phones have been ringing off the hook,” said Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D., executive director.

“We’ve seen a dramatic uptick; it’s unbelievable,” she said. The 26-year-old institute (telehealth.org) offers clinical, legal, ethical and competency-based professional training, staffing, and consultation to advance the responsible use of technology in healthcare.

Maheu said in addition to individual psychologists, she had several groups and agencies calling her about training staff, such as college counseling offices and national behavioral organizations.

She’s also seen a rush of people who previously purchased training signing back in to finish their certifications.

“Their employers are asking for this,” she said. Maheu also has had several organizations ask her to set up web-based presentations about teletherapy.

The American Psychological Association (APA) suggested in early March that psychologists explore telepsychology options because of the outbreak, which was officially designated a global pandemic on March 11 by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“In this fast-moving environment, APA staff is working to provide appropriate and timely guidance to psychologists and the general public on a wide range of issues related to coronavirus,” Jared Skillings, Ph.D., APA’s chief of professional practice, said via email.

The association has posted a lengthy notice, “How to protect your patients and your practice,” on its website, urging psychologists to consider their flexibility and how the pandemic might impact their business.

The notice encourages psychologists to find out if teletherapy sessions will be reimbursed by insurance, develop a way to stay in touch with patients during the outbreak, write a notice explaining how your office will function and talk with patients about their comfort level with teletherapy.

The notice also encourages psychologists to promote hygiene in their offices, have hand sanitizer available, practice self-care and quell fears by offering credible information to patients and others in the community.

Maheu said this is the perfect time for psychologists to use telepsychology. She said most psychologists can use their own computer and can pay monthly for a platform that will support the practice.

She said top-of-the-line training costs about $1,500.

“The cost has gone down over the years and if you add that to the pandemic, it just makes sense,” she said. “People have said it was going to take a catastrophe for people to realize telehealth is viable, and now we have this.”

Maheu said teletherapy reduces barriers for people to get care and its expansion will be something good for everyone.

As a result of the coronavirus, Congress passed legislation in early March expanding when Medicare will pay for telehealth services. That legislation, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, will allow more – but not all — patients to engage in teletherapy with clinical psychologists and have it covered by Medicare, according to the act. 

Others offer training in teletherapy, including the Zur Institute.

“The research is clear that telemental health is cost-effective, serves as an effective approach to delivering care and allows for well-matched therapeutic relationships where they were unavailable before,” the institute said on its web site. “With the coronavirus causing major concerns and even panic in some sections, there was never a more appropriate and relevant time than now to get educated/trained and offer existing and new clients telemental health services.”

WHO issued suggestions March 6 on mental-health considerations during the pandemic. Those include avoiding constant access to news about the virus, opting instead to seek information once or twice a day; finding ways to promote positive stories about the virus, such as stories about those who have recovered; managing stress; seeking support from colleagues; and getting adequate rest.

Psychologists also are being called on to quell the fears of their patients, the general public and those quarantined because of the virus. 

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