The concept of telehealth isn’t new. In fact, one the earliest conceptions of something akin to modern telehealth was described in the cover story of Radio News in April, 1924. The story envisioned a time when people could consult with their physician via their home radio set. Although this particular vision of the future never materialized, it wasn’t too far off from where we find ourselves today.
Telehealth itself isn’t new, but its widespread usage is. In a matter of a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly changed the regulatory and reimbursement rules for telehealth, transforming it into a viable option for widespread use for the first time in history.
This rapid shift to telehealth has resulted in uncertainty about how to deliver therapy most effectively when working remotely — and the etiquette that’s involved in providing professional services from home. The concern is well-founded, since how a therapist relates to clients online can impact the efficacy of treatment. In this post, we’re sharing how to address technical elements, ideas for creating a supportive environment, and tips from the American Medical Association for telehealth etiquette.
Setting the Stage
Whether you’re providing care in-person or via telehealth, preparation will help you feel more confident and ensure everything is set up as it should be before the session begins. As with in-person sessions, remote sessions require a professional space that’s distraction-free and makes the client feel at ease. The same holds true for the space where you’re hosting telehealth sessions, but the ways in which you accomplish this goal will vary in significant ways. Here are some key things to put into place before your first telehealth session.
- Use a High-Quality Telehealth Platform and Webcam — Investing in a quality telehealth software program at the outset will pay big dividends as it makes the process simple and secure. A good telehealth platform should be easy for the therapist and client to navigate. Before making a purchase, carefully review the list of features to make sure the software is a good fit for your practice. Ask for a free trial to test it out for yourself. Reading online reviews from other therapists can give you a better picture of how it actually performs out in the wild.
- Master the Tech — Just like any new technology, getting proficient takes some practice. Spend some time getting familiar with your chosen telehealth platform. Watching explainer videos, reading how-to articles, and even practicing connecting with a therapist friend for a dry run will help make sure you’re comfortable with the system. You don’t have to be perfect, of course, but being proficient is important in establishing client confidence.
- Stable, High-Speed Connectivity — Your telehealth software is only as strong as the internet connection that’s supporting it. If you haven’t already, invest in the most stable, high-speed internet connection that’s available in your area. Experiencing connectivity issues during a session is something you want to avoid if at all possible as it disrupts treatment. 1.2Mbps is the minimum connection speed recommended to establish and maintain a video telehealth session.
- Position the Webcam So Clients Can Fully See Your Face — For clients to feel connected to you, they’ll need to see your face. If your webcam is off to the side of your computer, make sure it’s positioned appropriately.
- Avoid Background Noise and Distractions — If you’re doing telehealth sessions from the office, noise and distractions aren’t likely to be much of an issue. But if you’re at home, you may need to work a little harder to keep things quiet and calm while you’re in session. Bribery works great for kids when it comes to keeping the noise down! You’ll also want to be sure you can maintain client confidentiality, so use noise machines, headphones, or other tools to ensure your session stays private.
- Use a Professional Backdrop — One final at-home consideration: select your background carefully. Make sure what’s behind you is appropriate. This can be tricky when the only space you have available to work from at home is a bedroom.
Creating a Supportive Environment
Good news! Many of the same skills you deploy regularly during face-to-face sessions are fully transferable to telehealth. With a few tweaks and some special considerations, you’ll be ready to connect screen-to-screen with your clients in a more meaningful way.
- Focus on Maintaining Eye Contact — Especially for clients used to interacting face-to-face, migrating to a telehealth platform can take some getting used to. Be extra intentional about maintaining good eye contact throughout the session.
- Narrate Your Actions During the Session — Telehealth shrinks down a client’s view of you and your surrounding space to a box that’s measured in inches. If you need to look down or step away from the screen during a session, let them know ahead of time so they know what you’re doing. Narrating your movements play-by-play helps clients feel more comfortable.
- Use Natural, Empathetic Language — If shifting to telehealth is a big change for you, chances are it's an even bigger adjustment for your clients. Using the same natural, empathetic language that you would during in-person sessions will help your clients acclimate more easily to the new format.
Now for a few closing thoughts on how to ace your transition from an in-person to telehealth-based mental healthcare provider.
- Be Extra Clear About Post-Appointment Instructions — If you assign homework or need to provide a client with additional information after a session, be sure they know what to expect and are clear on what you’re recommending.
- Ask the Client for Feedback on the Appointment — Each of your clients will bring their own unique perspective to the telehealth experience. After your first telehealth session with each client, ask for their input on what went well and how things could be improved.
The American Medical Association has created a handy telehealth visit etiquette checklist. It offers an actionable checkbox list of to-do’s. This resource would be great for distributing to the therapists working in your practice.
Providing therapy to clients via telehealth has its own unique set of challenges when it comes to etiquette. Telehealth requires more leg work ahead of time to ensure the technology supporting the session runs smoothly. It also demands a more intentional approach to effectively connect with clients across town rather than across the room. But as with any new experience, over time, the rules of etiquette for telehealth will gradually become second nature — much the same way that seeing clients face-to-face is now.
For more tips and tricks on Telehealth for your practice, visit out The Definitive Guide to Telehealth Guide.
See how Thera-LINK, a HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform, can help you connect effectively with your clients.