Telemedicine and the Future of Counseling

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At first glance, telemedicine sounds like a word out of an improbable future. It conjures up a scenario that could be taken straight from TV: a face-to-face video call between doctor and patient results in the materialization of a pill bottle that the patient can pluck directly from the screen.

In some ways, telemedicine is as futuristic as it sounds. But in fact, the concept of telemedicine is simply combining two of the most primitive urges in human society: the motivation to communicate and the wish to heal the sick.

Telemedicine, Then and Now

Since earliest times in human history, tribes living in remote villages would use large campfires to warn other villages of the occurrence of disease in their community. This could be the considered the most basic application of telemedicine, which is broadly defined as using telecommunication and information technologies to provide healthcare at a distance.

As information technology has proliferated, so has telemedicine, which explains how the 21st century is the moment when telemedicine has really come into its own. Today, telemedicine is being developed through active practice in a great number of healthcare categories, such as emergency medicine, nursing, pharmaceutical care, trauma care, rehabilitation and even cardiology and radiology.

Counseling Through Telecommunication 

Telepsychiatry is the title commonly given to telemedicine in the fields of behavioral and mental healthcare. Students pursuing a counseling degree in this day and age will find themselves frequently asked to consider the benefits and the challenges of telecommunication in the context of their chosen field.

Several universities around the United States have undertaken practical testing in offering a “telemedicine” approach to counseling. For example, the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center has pioneered two telepsychiatry programs that serve Native American populations with limited access to in-person counseling. In the UK, a for-profit company called Instant Change Center piloted a video therapy program offering live video therapy sessions for patients with depression, anxiety, and stress related conditions.

Even the United States government has piloted a telemedicine program in counseling. In 2011, the U.S. Veterans Administration premiered a “telemental health pilot” that has gone on to great success.

Benefits of Counseling through Telemedicine

The benefits of telemedicine for counseling include:

More immediate access to help. By cutting out commuting, wait times and the many scheduling issues that surround traditional healthcare, patients can receive quicker and more efficient access to care.

Better quality of care. It is often lamented in the counseling field that the areas where counseling care is most needed are the areas where it is hardest to find a qualified counselor. Patients in rural or underserved communities may not even be aware of counseling as an option, much less have access to visit a counselor on any regular basis. Telemedicine creates an opportunity for those patients to have immediate access to the care they need.

Questions Remain

There are, of course, drawbacks to counseling within the context of telemedicine. The most immediate concern for counselors is how to establish the necessary dynamic of trust, comfort and rapport with their patients.  Guidelines for accomplishing that type of relationship have been provided by the National Board for Certified Counselors in the policy document related to the provision of distance counseling as well as by the American Counseling Association code of ethic.

And questions remain about how telemedicine will be regulated, how insurance carriers will treat this modality of treatment, and how telemedicine providers will ensure patients’ security and privacy.

Today’s students pursuing a counseling degree will be the arbiters of how well telemedicine can ensure that counseling patients receive the same care and protection as those in the traditional setting.