Excerpted from New York Times
Mary Smith headed outside to her friend’s pool. Settling into a lounge chair, she tapped the Skype application 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.
Ms. Smith, a 33-year-old high school teacher, 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!”
And, she added, “I even e-mailed him that I was panicked about a first date, and he wrote back and said we could do a 20-minute mini-session.”
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 has 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.
“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?
Ms. Smith 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.
But does knowing that your therapist is just a phone tap or mouse click away create a 21st-century version of shrink-neediness?
“There’s that comfort of carrying your doctor around with you like a security blanket,” Ms. Smith acknowledged. “But,” she added, “because he’s more accessible, I feel like I need him less.”
The technology does have its speed bumps. Online treatment upends a basic element of therapeutic connection: eye contact.
Patient and therapist typically look at each other’s faces on a computer screen. But in many setups, the camera is perched atop a monitor. Their gazes are then off-kilter.
“So patients can think you’re not looking them in the eye,” said Lynn Bufka, a staff psychologist with the American Psychological Association. “You need to acknowledge that upfront to the patient, or the provider has to be trained to look at the camera instead of the screen.”
The quirkiness of Internet connections can also 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.”
Research on the effectiveness of on-line therapy shows the same effects, essentially, as in person therapy, so the practicality of on-line therapy outweighs the few negative issues, such as not sitting in front of the client and seeing his/her body language, eye contact, etc. In addition, I am able to Skype with clients who are on vacation in other locals, and with athletes, who are out of town performing in major events and want to touch base with me before or after their events. In short, I have found using Skype has grown my practice and dramatically increased my access to clients.
Dr. Jack Singer offers Skype Therapy with clients all over California. For more information, contact Dr. Jack at (800) 497-9880.