With the novel coronavirus ravaging the world and physical (not social!) distancing the norm in public spaces, a lot of people are turning to online services. For most, this includes increasing their use of social networks and social gaming. But it can also mean making better use of treatment tools readily available.
Two of those online tools include telehealth (or telemedicine) and online therapy. Both have been around for decades, but are experiencing a surge in popularity and use, due to the stay-at-home requirements imposed across the nation.
Should you give telehealth or online therapy a try right now? In a word, yes.
Both telehealth and online therapy services operate from the same general principal — they offer you the same kind of service through the internet, instead of seeing someone face-to-face.
You sign up for a commercial service — or use one provided by your health insurance company (which generally also requires a separate sign-up process) — and schedule a call to talk to a healthcare provider, whether it be a physician or a therapist. The talking can typically be done via video, telephone, or messaging.
In telehealth services, after you go through a medical background application (which sometimes can be done over the phone, if you prefer), you get to schedule a time for a call back from the doctor. Many times doctors are available the same day to see you, which is amazing if you have an immediate concern.
If you’re trying to see your own primary care physician, you’ll go through a similar process, but you’ll likely have to wait longer for a scheduled appointment with them. That’s because commercial services can draw from a wide network of physicians across the country. While your own primary care physician has an existing caseload that can be overwhelming in times of a pandemic like this one.
Services generally use something like FaceTime — a one-one-one videoconference call done through your smartphone. Generally, you can also choose not to use video, if you don’t like it or don’t want to use it and just feel more comfortable with a regular telephone call.
Prices for independent telehealth services are all over the map. If you’re using your own primary care physician, you’ll likely be responsible for the co-pay, similar as you would be for an in-office visit. If you’re using an independent telehealth company like American Well, PlushCare, DoctoronDemand, or Teladoc, expect to pay anywhere from $75 to $300 for the initial consultation, which usually lasts anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes.
Online doctors can prescribe medications just like your regular doctor. So if you’re running low on a prescription and can’t get through to your usual doctor, you can consider using an online service to get needed medication in an emergency.
In online therapy services, you’ll go through a similar online application that will ask questions about your background and your concerns (“What brings you to see one of our therapists today?”). Expect to be honest and share as much as possible in that intake application, in order to best help your therapist understand where you are in your life.
Online therapy services like BetterHelp (a Psych Central sponsor) and Talkspace, offer a variety of ways of communicating with the therapists in their network. These include video calls (just like in telehealth care), and secure messaging through their apps and websites.
Therapists provided through these services are credentialed and verified. Because you’re communicating through technology, the therapist may also be more readily available for complex concerns that require specialization or expertise that may not be found in your local community.
Pros & Cons
During times where we all need to keep our physical distance from one another and try and keep out of medical facilities like doctors’ offices, using a distance technology like telehealth or online therapy makes a lot of sense. You do so at your convenience, in the comfort of your own home. This means you are not exposing yourself to any risk of contracting the coronavirus, while still accessing needed services.
Many people use different modalities available through these services too. It doesn’t just have to be video conferencing. You can leave secure notes or messages for your provider through the app or web dashboard, which may help a person explain or talk about something that is embarrassing or difficult to say to a person face-to-face.
It’s also generally easier to contact someone through an online service than it is to get your doctor or therapist on the phone. That convenience of connection can be important for people who need help now.
Some people might find some online services to be cheaper or more cost effective that their face-to-face counterparts, but this really depends on the service you’re using and what you’re currently paying under your health insurance plan.
Some people have privacy concerns using an online service. Many use advertising and social networking bits of code in your web browser (called “cookies”) that track your behavior across websites, and while technically devoid of personal information, they help form complex psychographic profiles used by advertisers and marketing companies.
Furthermore, despite de-identification of data, medical records can be re-identified through technology, such as AI, and by legal means. If you’re working in a security-sensitive industry or are especially privacy-sensitive, this may be a legitimate concern.
While some services may be covered by your health insurance plan, others may not be, requiring out-of-pocket payments that may be more expensive than the same face-to-face service in-network. Check with your health insurance provider to see if the service you want to use is covered.
Refund policies vary widely across the industry, and there’s no guarantee the telehealth or online therapy service you use is actually going to help with your concern. Check with the service’s refund terms, and what you can do if you feel a provider has acted in a manner that caused you concern or upset.
Now’s a great time to try telehealth services or online therapy. These are proven technologies that have been used by millions around the world for many years now. Research suggests interventions done through them are just as effective as face-to-face interventions, so if the coronavirus has you locked in your apartment or house, consider reaching out to one of these services today.
Disclosure: BetterHelp, an online therapy provider, is a sponsor of Psych Central and its podcasts. BetterHelp is owned by Teladoc, also mentioned in this article.
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