Are Online Psychiatry And Psychotherapy The Next Frontier In Digital Health?

Post written by James Wantuck


In 2017, the World Health Organization declared that mental health disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide. However, there are not enough professionals to reach the huge number of people affected, and the shortage of treatment options is only getting worse. One solution is to move mental health treatment online.

My company recently introduced telepsychiatry and therapy services to our patients. The demand has been overwhelming, and we are working on rolling it out across the country. According to a Frost and Sullivan report, telemental health is expected to grow by 22.5% annually through 2021.

So let’s take a look at some data that shows why online mental health treatment may be a growing trend over the next few years.

1. Online psychotherapy is as effective as in-person treatment

People receiving treatment for depression showed the same results, whether they saw an online or in-person psychiatrist, according to this study. They also had the same treatment satisfaction ratings.

There is very little clinical downside to patients having online appointments, particularly for relatively straightforward cases of stress and anxiety, depression, relationship issues and workplace conflicts.

Of course, there are cases when a patient’s mental health calls for in-person treatment, but for the average person struggling with a mental health disorder, online services are just as good as, if not better than, traditional psychiatry and psychotherapy.

Effectiveness alone is one reason to increase access to mental healthcare online.

2. People tend to be more adherent to their medication

For a variety of reasons, people with mental illnesses often struggle with medication management. The symptoms of these conditions — like mental slowness, physical lethargy or a false belief that they don’t need medication — make adherence difficult. According to this study, other sociodemographic factors seem to be common in cases of bad adherence, including low income, low socio-educational status, the severity of depression and difficult access to physicians or to medication.

Medication noncompliance across all health issues reduces treatment efficacy and costs the United States up to $300 billion per year. Any improvement in mental health medication compliance can improve patient outcomes and reduce expenses associated with noncompliance.

The ability to get antidepressants and other psychiatric medications online can help patients to be more compliant with their treatment regimen. For this reason and others, I believe we’ll continue to see psychiatric medication maintenance moving online.

3. It’s more cost-efficient

One in six Americans has been diagnosed with depression at some point, and the rate is almost twice as high for low-income earners, according to this Gallup survey. Unfortunately, this means that the people most in need of mental health services are the people who can least afford it.

Virtual mental health services have the capacity to change this. Because of lower overhead — no office space and a distributed workforce — virtual providers can pass on cost savings to consumers. In many cases, this means the consumer pays the same or less for online services than they would in person.

Moreover, even if online solutions have the same insurance copay, travel time and expenses related to travel and childcare can add up. Virtual visits eliminate those unnecessary expenses, as evidenced by one such case study of a telehealth program.

4. It’s more time-efficient

Online psychiatry/psychotherapy is definitely much more convenient than traditional in-person appointments. As internet and smartphone access continues to proliferate and comfort with virtual medicine grows, I expect that adoption will accelerate.

With no travel time, virtual therapy and psychiatry takes less time than traditional appointments. There’s no need to leave work early to dash across town. Patients can have an online appointment on their phone during their lunch break. Patients also avoid wait times and experience a higher level of privacy when seeing a mental health professional from home.

For some people, particularly for those with anxiety disorders, the comfort of having a psychotherapy or psychiatry visit from home is very advantageous. The act of leaving home can be stressful for some, so the small comfort of having an appointment at home is a convenience in and of itself.

With virtual appointments, patients can allocate only the time needed to speak with their therapist or psychiatrist, nothing more.

Online psychiatry/psychotherapy improves access to care

More than half the counties in the United States lack a practicing psychiatrist. That alone presents a challenge for many patients to receive psychiatric care.

Even for people who do have access to a local psychiatrist, getting to an appointment can be difficult. Older adults, patients with chronic illnesses and people with agoraphobia or severe depression may struggle to get to appointments.

There’s no denying that more people will have access to care if they can receive online psychiatric services. I’m optimistic about the continued growth of virtual mental health, and I’m excited to be a part of providing greater access to mental healthcare.