The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred some remarkable advancements in remote mental health care, and a new study from University College London shows that telemedicine practices will continue beyond the pandemic. However, the experts caution that there are still some barriers that need to be overcome.
Telemedicine allows health care professionals to evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients remotely using various forms of technology.
In a survey involving 29 countries, mental health care staff reported on how the pandemic has been harmful to some people that need access to mental health services.
In addition, a separate UCL study summarizes 872 published reports on mental health complications that arose during lockdowns across six continents.
For example, many people had increased anxiety due to concerns about getting infected, while others struggled with the loss of routine, social isolation, or loneliness.
Many of the studies indicated that social adversities and inequalities could continue to get worse.
“People working in mental health care settings across the UK and globally have reported rapid innovation at their workplaces, including the rapid adoption of telemedicine, after years of slow progress,” said Professor Sonia Johnson, who is a co-author on both studies.
“Most people we surveyed support partial adoption of remote working, but they caution that telemedicine doesn’t work for everyone, and there are still major challenges to be addressed for it be truly effective. The voices of the digitally excluded are especially in danger of not being heard.”
Mental health professionals said they anticipate an increased need for services as concerns about inpatient care continue to rise.
“Mental health care staff in many countries are concerned about a potential delayed wave of increased demand, putting strain on services with limited resources,” said Dr. Luke Sheridan Rains. “The potential long duration of the pandemic suggests that avoiding a crisis in mental health care should be a global priority.”
The researchers explained that while there is not much official data available yet, mental health care staff from numerous countries reported reduced referrals and visits to mental health services in the very early stages of the pandemic. This may be due to fears of infection, the belief that help would not be available, or worry over being a burden.
In the UK survey, the experts noted that a key challenge continues to be managing to combine infection control with a good therapeutic environment.
“We found that balancing infection control requirements with maintaining therapeutic relationships with patients who may be distressed, suspicious, or struggling to comprehend the situation, remains an important priority, and, as we have seen with reports of Covid-19 deaths among people subject to the Mental Health Act, the price of failure is potentially very high,” said study first author Christian Dalton-Locke.
“We found that in the UK and in other countries, mental health care providers have demonstrated considerable agility and flexibility in responding to the pandemic, but staff remain concerned for the future,” said study senior author Professor Alan Simpson.
“Regarding telemedicine, our sources have given a clear warning that substantial technological, social and procedural barriers remain, and that its use should remain selective, complementing rather than replacing face-to-face contact.”
The study is published in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.