Teletherapy as a resource during COVID-19 & beyond
Among the many unanticipated consequences of the pandemic is the rapid acceptance of teleconferencing technology in health care. We are daily reading about medical providers using this technology to perform consultations and diagnostic evaluations for all manner of health-related problems. The field of psychotherapy is likewise embracing the technology as a means of providing continuity of care for our clients when they are unable to be seen in our offices.
The Family Institute at Northwestern University has been an early adopter of teletherapy. For the past two years, a group of staff members has experimented with offering individual, couple and family therapy services to clients who were unable to get to one of our offices. Sometimes teletherapy was appropriate because one or more family members traveled for work. Sometimes it allowed continuity of care with an adolescent who was away at college. Sometimes a client couldn’t leave home for one reason or another, but still wanted to have a session with the therapist.
When we first discussed doing teletherapy at The Family Institute, many of us were skeptical. Would it be possible to create the same level of connection, trust and understanding on a computer screen that we are able to achieve when we sit across from our clients in the same office? After more than a year of experience, we are confident that the answer to that question is “yes.”
When we decided to enter this arena, we did extensive research to secure a platform that would meet all federally mandated requirements to protect client privacy. That process led us to adopt Zoom as our platform. Zoom is flexible, and the version the organization purchased is encrypted (thus meeting HIPAA requirements for privacy protection), and almost foolproof to use.
In the current health crisis, Zoom has allowed our clinical staff members to continue the work they have been doing with clients without missing a beat, clients whose needs are only increasing under the weight of the extraordinary stress that the pandemic has created in all our lives. When Governor Pritzker issued his “stay at home” order, we were already prepared to transfer all our clinical work onto the platform.
When we first discussed doing teletherapy at The Family Institute, many of us were skeptical. Would it be possible to create the same level of connection, trust and understanding on a computer screen that we are able to achieve when we sit across from our clients in the same office? After more than a year of experience, we are confident that the answer to that question is “yes.” Early on we surveyed both clients and therapists about their experience and found that both groups were highly satisfied with teletherapy as the delivery vehicle for their treatment. From the standpoint of convenience, it is inarguably superior to face-to-face therapy when factoring in the commuting time and parking challenges often faced at our largest facilities in Evanston and Downtown Chicago. But beyond that, the proximity of the camera to the faces of both clients and therapist makes the experience feel quite intimate.
Finally, as someone who no one could ever mistake for being “tech savvy,” I can say in all honesty that using Zoom is extremely easy. Your therapist can walk you through the process in a matter of minutes. Once you download the program to your own device (computer, iPad or phone), all that’s required to enter your session is to click on a link that your therapist will send you in an email. That’s it. Promise.
We do not know how long the present crisis will last, or how the cultural landscape may change afterward. It may be that most clients will be eager to switch back to face-to-face sessions. But, for those who find it challenging to get to their therapist’s office, Zoom will remain a helpful resource long after we have left the current crisis behind us.