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Psychologists Rapidly Migrate Online

September 03, 2020

A national study of 2,619 licensed psychologists conducted by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University found that their clinical work conducted via telehealth platforms has increased 12-fold since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Respondents to the survey said that prior to the pandemic, 7% of their work was conducted remotely; 46% said they did not use telepsychology at all pre-pandemic. That has climbed to 86% during the pandemic, with 67% of responding psychologists saying that all of their work is now being done via telehealth. Post-pandemic, respondents said they expect to conduct 35% of sessions online on average.

“I was shocked to see how quickly telepsychology was adopted,” study lead author Brad Pierce, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, said in a news release. “There was a concerted effort among the community to identify and remove long-standing barriers. Psychologists sought out additional training, equipment was purchased, and policies were adjusted at every level to facilitate telehealth and telepsychology.”

The survey uncovered several other trends with regards to pandemic-fueled rise of telehealth adoption by psychologists:

  • Outpatient facilities had the most dramatic rise in telehealth adoption, with telehealth usage 26 times the rate of pre-pandemic levels. Practitioners in Veterans Affairs offices, meanwhile, saw just a sevenfold increase, which researchers said was likely due to higher rates of technology use pre-pandemic.
  • The subgroups with the most dramatic increase in telehealth adoption were: women, psychologists with access to training in telepsychology and supportive organizational policies (i.e., those in group practice who had access to support for transitioning online and fewer procedural hurdles to negotiate), and among those who worked in settings that specialize in relationship issues, anxiety and women’s issues.
  • The lowest increases were observed among psychologists working in rural areas, those in settings that specialize in treating antisocial personality disorder, performing testing and evaluation, and treating rehab populations.
  • Age and race/ethnicity were not found to be factors correlated with any statistically significant difference in adoption rates vs. the overall survey population.

Paul Perrin, PhD, an associate professor in VCU’s Department of Psychology and director of the university’s Social Justice in Disability and Health Lab who was a co-author of the study, offered a caveat to the findings: While the study documents the widespread of adoption of telehealth during the pandemic, the jury is still out on whether virtual treatment is actually meeting patient needs, particularly among groups that experience disparities in care.

“I believe that much more needs to be done in terms of bringing evidence-based practice to populations often marginalized in traditional mental health care,” Perrin said in the news release. “The practice of telepsychology assumes a lot of things like patient access to technology, internet or telephone, and even to payment options for telepsychology. Despite the potential of telepsychology to rise to some of the mental health needs laid bare during the pandemic, there are still many limitations and barriers to its use that need to be worked out.”

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