by Omar Fattal, MD
Few years ago, a family friend in Lebanon started experiencing panic attacks and depression. He was seeing a local psychiatrist but was not improving. He asked me for a second opinion. I was able to treat all his symptoms using a combination of phone and video calls. This was my first experience with Telepsychiatry, which is defined as delivering mental health services over the Internet using video and audio calling (just like Skype or FaceTime) as opposed to the traditional face to face care. This experience cemented my belief in the effectiveness of Telepsychiatry. Since then, I have used Telepsychiatry successfully with a number of patients across the Arab World.
I have also attended several training workshops on Telepsychiatry, reviewed the standards of care available for Telepsychiatry, and reviewed the literature on the subject. In a nutshell, here at the top 5 reasons why I believe people living in the Arab World should use Telepsychiatry:
1) It’s easy!
It’s not uncommon for people to spend a couple of hours in travel time to get to their doctor’s office. Add the inconvenience of finding parking, the wait, and if one has children then you have to add the need to find someone to watch the children. Telepsychiatry allows the person to see the doctor from the comfort of his/her own home. Telepsychiatry uses technology that is very comparable to Skype and is therefore very easy to operate, even by those who are not technologically savvy. All one had to do is download the app, turn it on, and you are ready to go.
2) It’s effective
Telepsychiatry has been around for many years. There has been numerous studies that looked at the effectiveness of Telepsychiatry in the United States and Europe and compared it to traditional face-to-face care. These studies have showed that Telepsychiatry was as effective as traditional face-to-face care and patients were satisfied with the quality of care they received. (1,2)
3) It’s private
Whether we like it or not, and despite many awareness campaigns, we continue to encounter stigma surrounding issues related to mental health. This stigma is very pronounced in certain societies like the Arab society. Many patients do not wish to be seen in the waiting room of a psychiatrist or prefer not to see a local psychiatrist due to the fear of loss of confidentiality. Telepsychiatry offers complete privacy since the client can receive care from the privacy of their own home. In addition, high quality Telepsychiatry services use communication platforms that are HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliant. HIPPA regulates the standards to ensure that care is protecting patient’s health information. VSee is an example of an application that is HIPPA compliant. In other words if a patient uses VSee to receive psychiatric services, there is no risk of loss of sensitive information. (3)
4) It’s endorsed by the APA
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA)’s website “The use of video-based telepsychiatry helps meet patients’ needs for convenient, affordable and readily-accessible mental health services. With a robust evidence base that shows telepsychiatry leading to improved outcomes and higher patient satisfaction ratings, policy makers, payers and providers are increasingly considering ways to implement and use telepsychiatry.” (4) The APA has also issued specific guidelines on the use of Telepsychiatry.
5) It’s needed
Personal observation and experience point to severe shortage of qualified mental health providers in the Middle East. According to a recent study, there are 3.4 psychiatrists in Qatar and only 1.1 psychiatrist in Saudi Arabia per 100,000 people compared to 13.7 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in the United States. (5) These numbers don’t take into account the quality of psychiatric services being delivered. Telepsychaitry has the added advantage of bridging high quality psychiatrists who are American Board certified who live and practice in the United States according to the latest guidelines with clients who live in the Middle East.
1-Hailey D, Roine R, Ohinmaa A. (2008). The effectiveness of telemental health applications: a review. Can J Psychiatry. 53(11):769-78.
2- Donald M Hilty, Shayna L Marks, Doug Urness, Peter M Yellowlees, Thomas S Nesbitt. (2004). Clinical and Educational Telepsychiatry Applications: A Review Can J Psychiatry January. 49: 12-23
3- https://vsee.com/hipaa. accessed Nov 26, 2016
4- https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/telepsychiatry. Accessed Nov 26, 2016
5- Jefee-Bahloul, H. (2014). Telemental Health in the Middle East: Overcoming the Barriers. Frontiers in Public Health, 2, 86.