Telemedicine has often been touted as a solution for remote regions with physician shortages, but one area of medicine is finding that telemedicine brings unexpected benefits, even if the patient lives right around the corner. Home telepsychiatry brings psychotherapy to the patient and meets the patient’s needs where he/she is. In the process, the physician can gain invaluable insight into the patient’s living situation—insight that might otherwise take weeks to uncover during in-office therapy sessions. For instance, a patient once complained of a cluttered home; she turned out to be a hoarder. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has discovered especially intriguing results from using home telepsychiatry.
When it comes to some mental health disorders, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, the condition can cause patients to engage in ritualistic behaviors and recurrent unwanted thoughts that are often set off by triggers, such as germs. For some of these patients, simply traveling to a medical facility can provoke the undesirable behaviors, causing extra anxiety. In some cases, the anxiety levels are so high that the patient cannot visit the clinic at all. Telemedicine allows these patients to receive the needed care in a safe, comfortable, controlled environment. By applying exposure therapy in familiar surroundings, the therapist can help the patient overcome rituals triggered by daily stimuli.
In other situations, veterans who have experienced sexual harassment or assault may not be ready to discuss the event, but home psychotherapy can help them manage their symptoms and reach a point where they may feel more comfortable working through the issues with a therapist.
Substance abuse disorders have also been treated successfully via telemedicine, even for a woman staying at a homeless shelter after she refused to come in for treatment.
In a more extreme case, Dr. Thomas Kim uses his smartphone or tablet to help patients in crises. Once alerted to a patient in need, the physician immediately connects to him/her. In this way, Kim has literally talked patients out of killing themselves. He also sees telepsychiatry as an alternative to relying heavily on drugs to mask or ease discomfort. The advantage of mHealth, says Kim, is its ability to meet people where they’re most comfortable and vulnerable regardless of the date or time: “This is not exceptional or peripheral to healthcare. This is healthcare. This is the right provider offering the right care at the right time.”