Latimer: Telemedicine gives mental health a boost

Mental health care is turning out to be one area of health that is adapting well to modern developments.

Love it or hate it, in the age of smartphones, apps and constant virtual connection, it would be surprising if there weren’t technological developments in healthcare delivery.

Mental health care is turning out to be one area of health that is adapting well to modern developments. With services such as Skype or FaceTime, it is now possible for mental health professionals to meet with patients remotely, which is proving to have great potential for improving access and delivery of care.

In Ontario, a telemedicine network was founded in the 1990s with the goal of improving health care access for those not able to travel to receive health care. Any medical field was welcomed to participate and the group helped launch many pilot projects.

Rural communities were considered the most likely to benefit – patients could have a consultation or intervention without having to travel distances to larger centres. The group thought specialties such as internal medicine would likely have the largest interest in telemedicine techniques.

Interestingly, mental health and addictions were by far the most common. In 2014 there were almost 200,000 telemedicine events related to mental health compared to only about 23,000 for internal medicine (the second most popular).

This really isn’t too surprising when you consider many small rural communities do not have mental health specialists and mental health treatment often relies on talk therapy over multiple sessions to see improvement. Using technology such as video conferencing is a good fit and means patients don’t have to incur the inconvenience or expense of repeated or extended trips to larger centres.

High resolution, real time video talking really can be very similar to an in-person meeting once the technology is set up and both sides have figured out any technical issues.

Distance isn’t the only reason technology can be useful in mental health. The same tools can be used for those with access issues or could even be helpful for those whose symptoms make it difficult to attend appointments.

I have begun using this technology to a limited degree in my own practice and have found it quite effective in some cases. Service providers are now available that make the connection more secure for confidentiality purposes. I use it primarily for patients who have moved away and still need some follow-up. Sometimes they just need interim follow-up until they can find services in their new location.

Apps are also starting to play a role in managing mental health conditions. There are now many apps patients can use in between appointments to self-monitor their treatment progress. Symptoms, moods, medication side effects and questions can all be tracked in an app to be sent electronically to the healthcare provider when needed or discussed at a future appointment time. These tools can be very helpful in allowing patients to take an active role in their treatment and recovery.

Of course more study will need to be done to continue evaluating the role technology can play in mental health care delivery. I look forward to seeing what the future brings and how it can improve people’s quality and access to care.