Is your doctor accessible to you via email? Texting? Twitter? Facebook? Skype? Increasingly, the answer may be yes. Historically, health care professionals have shied away from technology due to the threat to patients’ privacy and their own liability. But a new breed of doctors are relying on technology such as texts, emails, blog messages, Skype sessions, Facebook and Twitter to communicate with their patients as well as the general public. Beyond basic emailing, some doctors are using technology to send healthcare messages to patients, schedule and change appointments, track disease trends on Twitter, provide psychotherapy during patient travel via Skype, or help people determine when it’s time for professional intervention via Facebook pages or blog posts. Doctors’ use of social media and virtual communication for patient care is expected to increase under the Accountable Care Act, which encourages electronic health records and the “electronic exchange” of health information.
Like many clinical psychologists in private practice today, I serve a patient population whose lives are brimming with work and family demands as well as after-work activities. People’s increasingly busy lives are allowing for less and less time to fit in phone conversations that require fewer distractions and more privacy. Ordinarily, doctors of the past would spend the end of their day responding to patient inquires via phone, only to end up playing phone tag over something relatively benign. These days, doctors and their patients have found it increasingly more convenient and effective to use various forms of technology to communicate in addition to phone calls. In my own practice, I may rely on technology for the following purposes:
- Use of blog articles posted on my professional websites and Facebook page to convey basic facts on clinical disorders and trends in healthcare
- emailing responses to new patient inquires for setting up an initial psychological evaluation appointment, and how to use healthcare insurance for mental health treatment
- texting with patients about changes in schedule for appointments, directions to office locations, and other general logistic information
- Skype sessions for occasional individual psychotherapy, such as when a patient is traveling out of town and prefers to continue weekly treatment
When it comes to treatment with a qualified healthcare expert, nothing can ever replace the value of engaging in a face-to-face appointment for evaluation and patient care. Patients and their doctors should have detailed communication up front about how and when use of technology is appropriate (and when it isn’t) for communication. Health care professionals should take precaution by educating themselves on the most recent safety guidelines for using technology in their professional practices, understand the limitations of their practice insurance, and employ the highest level of security measures for their electronic devices and internet services. Further, it is up to health care professionals who choose to employ technology for communication with their patients to take responsibility for informing their patients of the risks to privacy that may occur as a result of their choices.
For further information on the guidelines to using technology in the field of mental health, visit Joint Task Force on the Development of Telepsychology Guidelines for Psychologists and other recommendations from the American Psychological Association on distance therapy.