A Challenge for Telemental Health

I was taught to think clinically first and legally second. There are moments when following every regulation is clearly detrimental to the well-being of both the patient and the medical community at large, and these challenges have been highlighted by issues with telemental health during the pandemic.

A friend emailed me with a problem: He has a son who is a traveling nurse and is currently in psychotherapy. The therapist has, in accordance with licensing requirements, told his son that she can not see him when assignments take him to any state where she is not licensed. The patient needs to physically be in the same state where the clinician holds a license, technically for every appointment. The nursing assignments last for 3 months and he will be going to a variety of states. Does he really need to get a new therapist every 90 days?

The logistics seem mind-boggling in a time when there is a shortage of mental health professionals, and there are often long wait lists to get care. And even if it was all easy, I’ll point out that working with a therapist is a bit different then going to an urgent care center to have sutures removed or to obtain antibiotics for strep throat: The relationship is not easily interchangeable, and I know of no one who would think it clinically optimal for anyone to change psychotherapists every 3 months. The traveling nurse does not just need to find a “provider” in each state, he needs to find one he is comfortable with and he will have to spend several sessions relaying his history and forming a new therapeutic alliance. And given the ambiguities of psychotherapy, he would optimally see therapists who do not make conflicting interpretations or recommendations. Mind-boggling. And while none of us are irreplaceable, it feels heartless to tell someone who is traveling to provide medical care to others during a pandemic that they can’t have mental health care when our technology would allow for it.

In the “old days” it was simpler: Patients came to the office and both the patient and the clinician were physically located in the same state, even if the patient resided in another state and commuted hours to the appointment. Telemental health was done in select rural areas or in military settings, and most physicians did not consider the option for video visits, much less full video treatment. For the average practitioner, issues of location were not relevant. The exception was for college students who might reside in one state and see a psychiatrist or therapist in another, but typically everyone was comfortable taking a break from therapy when the patient could not meet with the therapist in person. If psychiatrists were having phone or video sessions with out-of-state patients on an occasional basis, it may have been because there was less scrutiny and it was less obvious that this was not permitted.

When the pandemic forced treatment to go online, the issues changed. At the beginning, issues related to state licensing were waived. Now each state has a different requirement with regard to out-of-state clinicians; some allow their residents to be seen, while others require the clinician to get licensed in their state and the process may or may not be costly or arduous for the provider. The regulations change frequently, and can be quite confusing to follow. Since psychiatry is a shortage field, many psychiatrists are not looking to have more patients from other states and are not motivated to apply for extra licenses.

Life as a practicing psychiatrist has been a moving target: I reopened my practice for some in-person visits for vaccinated patients in June 2021, then closed it when the Omicron surge seemed too risky, and I’ll be reopening soon. Patients, too, have had unpredictable lives.

For the practitioner who is following the rules precisely, the issues can be sticky. It may be fine to have Zoom visits with a patient who lives across the street, but not with an elderly patient who has to drive 90 minutes across a state line, and it’s always fine to have a video session with a patient in Guam. If a patient signs on for a video visit with a doctor licensed in Maine and announces there will be a visit to a brother in Michigan, does the clinician abruptly end the session? Does he charge for the then missed appointment, and don’t we feel this is a waste of the psychiatrist’s time when appointments are limited?

If college students started with therapists in their home states when universities shut down in the spring of 2020, must they now try to get treatment in the states where their college campuses are located? What if the university has a long wait for services, there are no local psychiatrists taking on new patients, or the student feels he is making good progress with the doctor he is working with? And how do we even know for sure where our patients are located? Are we obligated to ask for a precise location at the beginning of each session? What if patients do not offer their locations, or lie about where they are?

Oddly, the issue is with the location of the patient; the doctor can be anywhere as long as the patient’s body is in a state where he or she is licensed. And it has never been a problem to send prescriptions to pharmacies in other states, though this seems to me the essence of practicing across state lines.

In the State of the Union Address on March 1, President Biden had a hefty agenda: The Russian invasion of Ukraine, a global pandemic, spiraling inflation, and for the first time in a SOTU address, our president discussed a strategy to address our National Mental Health Crisis. The fact sheet released by the White House details many long-awaited changes to increase the mental health workforce to address shortages, instituting a “988” crisis line to initiate “someone to call, someone to respond, and somewhere for every American in crisis to go.” The proposals call for a sweeping reform in providing access to services, strengthening parity, and improving community, veterans, and university services – and the Biden administration specifically addresses telemental health. “To maintain continuity of access, the Administration will work with Congress to ensure coverage of tele-behavioral health across health plans, and support appropriate delivery of telemedicine across state lines.”

This is good news, as it’s time we concentrated on allowing access to care in a consumer-oriented way. It may let us focus on offering good clinical care and not focus on the following outdated regulations. Hopefully, those who want help will be able to access it, and perhaps soon a traveling nurse will be permitted to get mental health care with continuity of treatment.

Miller is a coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Miller has no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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