Conference Coverage

Practicing telepsychiatry: Include backup plans, ground rules



For psychiatrists embarking on a telemedicine consultation, it might be helpful to review a checklist of steps that will reduce the risk of problems when things go wrong, according to an overview of the dangers at the virtual Psychopharmacology Update presented by Current Psychiatry and the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists, sponsored by Medscape Live.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Ideally, telepsychiatry will function much like an inpatient office visit, but the dynamics differ – as do the things that can go wrong, according to Sanjay Gupta, MD, chief medical officer, BryLin Behavioral Health System, Buffalo, N.Y. “Issues can arise suddenly. You need contingency planning.”

At the outset, psychiatrists should establish the location of the patient. This is necessary at every telemedicine encounter. With a remote device, a patient could be essentially anywhere on Earth. Patients might not even remember to mention that they are vacationing in Australia.

The location of the patient is important in the event of an unexpected crisis. This is not only relevant to an unstable patient at risk of dangerous behavior, such as actively attempting suicide, but to patients who have a seizure or some other emergency that inhibits communication. Dr. Gupta advised obtaining phone numbers for crisis services relevant to the location of the patient, and this requires confirming that the patient is where he or she was expected to be.

In addition, there should be a plan for technological failure. As everyone knows, these failures, such as dysfunction of a device, a poor connection, or an Internet outage, can happen at any time. Both the clinician and the patient can derive reassurance from at least one if not two or more plans to reconnect in the event of these failures.

The visit should also begin with questions that will establish the patient has a sense of adequate privacy. This is one of the most common obstacles to an effective telemedicine consultation. Dr. Gupta pointed out that phone or computer cameras do not typically permit the clinician to exclude the presence of another individual sitting even a few feet away from the patient. With spouses and children nearby, there might be a tenuous sense of privacy even if they are unlikely to overhear the telemedicine visit.

One strategy that can be used to assess the patient’s level of comfort is to ask for a description of the patient’s surroundings and any other people at the location. Dr. Gupta also said it is appropriate to establish ground rules about recording of the session, which has its own potential to inhibit the interaction.

Warning that some form of consent to a telemedicine visit is mandatory in most states, Dr. Gupta also cautioned that a formal identification check is appropriate for a first-time visit. The risk of an individual offering a false identification is likely to be low, but it can be eliminated entirely by a protocol that verifies consent and identify before the clinical work begins.

Because of the importance of engaging patients quickly, Dr. Gupta called the first few minutes of a telemedicine visit “crucial.” By initiating the visit with a warm and respectful tone, by relaying a competent and professional appearance, and by establishing an atmosphere that encourages communication, the initial minutes of the call can set a tone that facilitates an effective visit.

Simple and established telehealth etiquette strategies should be employed, according to Dr. Gupta. He suggested paying attention to such issues as lighting, background, and camera position. Descriptions of what constitutes adequate lighting and background are easily obtained on free how-to websites, but the goal is to provide patients with a nondistracting and clear view of the clinician.

During a telemedicine visit, the clinician’s focus should remain on the patient, according to Dr. Gupta. He advised against taking notes or documenting the visit on an electronic health record during the course of the visit. Rather, he advised positioning the camera in a way that the patient feels eye contact is being made.

“It can be helpful to periodically summarize what the patient has said to demonstrate that you are fully engaged,” Dr. Gupta suggested.

Telemedicine is very effective for many but not all patients. Some, such as those with active psychosis, are not suited to this approach, but others are simply uncomfortable with this form of communication. Dr. Gupta suggested that clinicians should be mindful of the advantages and the limitations of telepsychiatry.

Ultimately, Dr. Gupta believes that the substantial expansion of telepsychiatry that took place during the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to persist when the pandemic ends, even if many of the changes that permitted its expansion, such as a relaxation of HIPPA requirements, are withdrawn. However, parity reimbursement for visits offered by telemedicine relative to those that are face-to-face, which greatly facilitated the growth of telepsychiatry, is not guaranteed, so this remains an unanswered question.

“The question is what will happen to the billing codes when we see COVID-19 in the rearview mirror, and the answer is that no one knows,” he said.


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