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Telepsychiatry in Action: One Woman’s Story
Karen Renken often picks up a phone or logs on to talk to her therapist or members of her support group. These are just some of the ways that telepsychiatry treatment is improving her life.
By Denise Mann
Medically Reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
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Karen Renken’s telephone and computer are her lifelines. They allow her to contact her psychiatrist during tumultuous times when she's too anxious to leave her home or can’t drive because of the side effects of her psychiatric medication.
The 52-year-old former cosmetologist has several mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. She's currently on disability. “Sometimes I’m so drained and upset that I don't want to leave my house," she says. "To be able to sit down and turn on my computer and talk to my therapist is a joy.”
Known as telepsychiatry, this type of psychiatric treatment is helping many like Renken survive and thrive in the face of mental illness. Video sessions make treatment more accessible and convenient to those who don't have local specialists or aren't able to get to a therapist's office. Some people, like Renken, log on at home, while others use a local primary care clinic.
“Skype is great because they can see you and whether or not you are taking care of yourself,” she says. “I can walk around with my laptop and say, ‘This is what I am doing.’ ”
Renken also uses Skype for group therapy sessions, which help her feel less alone during the times she is too anxious to leave the house.
The Role of Telemedicine for Treatment
“The obvious benefit of telepsychiatry is that people can get access to psychiatrists more easily, especially in geographic areas where there is a shortage or it’s not easy to get to the office," says , a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, in Sacramento, and a board member of the American Telemedicine Association. "You can see a practitioner who has an area of expertise and interest that doesn’t exist locally,” he says.
RELATED: The Many Benefits of Talk Therapy
Some psychiatric sessions simply don’t require a face-to-face visit, Baltimore psychiatrist Steven Daviss, MD, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Mental Health Information Technology, points out.
For Renken, who wants to move from her home in Bradenton, Fla., knowing that she wouldn't have to stop seeing her therapist could encourage her to take this step.
Road Rules for Telepsychiatry Treatment
Prescribing and monitoring psychiatric medication is also possible via telepsychiatry, Dr. Yellowlees says, noting that "most medicines can be prescribed electronically or called into a local pharmacy." Renken's medication adjustments were done this way, and she says she's been prescribed rescue medication in this manner, too.
It’s possible to get a correct diagnosis and treatment online, Yellowlees says, but practitioners need to follow important guidelines and put safeguards in place. “You must have the physical address that the patient is at and ideally a phone number or someone close by in case there is a serious issue,” he says.
Online screening and monitoring using apps can also help make in-person sessions more efficient. “Many people are more honest when they are answering questions in front of the computer,” he says. The psychiatrist then evaluates the information to make a diagnosis or tweak treatment.
As for security, "nothing is unhackable, but we are learning to be less hackable,” Dr. Daviss says. “You wouldn’t want to do this on a public computer.”
For Renken, though, the pros of telepsychiatry treatment definitely outweigh the cons.
“Being able to reach my therapist has saved my life during difficult times when I was suicidal or entering a manic stage," she says.
Video: Africa, Telemedicine, Telehealth by Doctor Gratis
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