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Telepsychiatry: Increasing Access to Mental Health Care

March 09, 2019

BOSTON, Mass.—Telepsychiatry can be a tool to bring much-needed mental health services to underserved populations, and its limitations can most often be overcome, Edward Kaftarian, MD, told attendees at Elevate by Psych Congress.

“In most cases, telepsychiatry can work in any situation that on-site can, and in some cases it works better,” said Dr. Kaftarian, a forensic psychiatrist and addictionologist who operates his own telepsychiatry company, Orbit Health Telepsychiatry, in Encino, California.

“You don’t compare telepsychiatry with on-site, you compare telepsychiatry with nothing. That’s the comparison because in many cases there are no other options,” he said. “Would you rather have a doctor that is on the screen or would you rather have no doctor? That’s a more appropriate comparison.”

Telepsychiatry can connect clinicians with patients in settings such as jails, addiction treatment centers, community clinics, and hospitals, and in rural areas, said Dr. Kaftarian, who is also the vice-chairman of mental health for the American Telemedicine Association and helped develop the telepsychiatry program for the California prison system.

He said the idea that telepsychiatry removes the human connection is false, and security and confidentiality issues are easily handled. The technology is affordable, common, and easy to use, and clinicians can see patients just as well as if they were face-to-face,  he argued.

Q&A: The Growing Role of Telepsychiatry in Mental Health Care

The first major use of telepsychiatry was in the 1950s at the University of Nebraska, which provided services to a state hospital 100 miles away, according to the presentation. It has become more common in the decades since and exploded in popularity in recent years, Dr. Kaftarian said.

He admitted there is more research to be done on telepsychiatry, but said “it’s probably just an intellectual exercise to do that.”

“We know that patients need help, and if we can’t provide them help on-site we need to find another way, whatever it takes,” he said.

For the clinician, telepsychiatry allows them to see patients across different geographical areas without incurring the time and expenses of travel, and lets them avoid settings where they may feel unsafe, he said. He noted insurance reimbursements for telemedicine visits may be slightly lower, but said clinicians can see more patients if they don’t need to travel to practice settings.

He urged the conference attendees to try out and get a feel for telepsychiatry, even if they don’t use it 100%.

“It will soon be everywhere,” he said. “It’s growing in California, but it’s also growing nationwide and worldwide. This is part of the future of psychiatry.”

—Terri Airov


“Getting Involved in Telepsychiatry.” Presented at Elevate by Psych Congress: Boston, MA; March 9, 2019.

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