New Channels for Help: Videoconferencing Expands Boundaries for Mental Health Care in Okla

Article excerpt

The Oklahoma City-based Variety Care group of family health clinics is expanding mental health care to rural areas well beyond the nonprofit's physical presence.

Normally access to emotional or psychological resources is limited in places such as Fort Cobb, Tipton and Grandfield, said David Howlett, director of behavioral health and special projects. Even if networks have the mental health professionals necessary to offer treatment, it's often simply impossible to get them across the state to where they're needed.

But setting up a videoconference between counselor and patient is another matter, Howlett said.

"It's a different modality of treatment that's possible with technology, a way to connect services to a population that's traditionally been difficult to reach," he said. "It's not the perfect solution to everything rural, but it's better than providing little or nothing. It can be hard to get counselors to travel 100 miles to an appointment that a client may or may not show up for. There's an inefficiency that makes it a struggle to get mental health services to people in rural areas."

The American Psychological Association's Center for Workforce Studies has been tracking the growth of the trend in "telepsychology," one of the catchall terms to describe the use of communication technology to contact patients. The APA found that email use with mental health clients more than tripled among practicing psychologists from 2000 to 2008, and the use of videoconferencing with clients increased from about 2 percent to 10 percent over the same period.

Support from the APA is increasing, albeit slowly. Association President Melba Vasquez in 2010 announced intent to create a joint task force with the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards to develop guidelines for telepsychology practice. Experts have been cautious because treating patients across state lines brings licensing issues into question, and new professional training is necessary to help overcome the absence of subtle communication cues that would normally be picked up by a counselor in the same room. …