13 Benefits of Teletherapy for Therapists
Online counseling is the new frontier. Reasons to consider taking the plunge.
Posted January 28, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
This post is the second of a two-part series. In Part 1, I explored the unique benefits of teletherapy from the patient perspective. That post can be found here.
For many therapists, the idea of teletherapy is both intriguing and intimidating. Selfless by nature, many therapists regularly go above and beyond the call of duty to accommodate patients, be it through late evening appointments, weekend sessions, or even exposing themselves to severely ill clients at the detriment of their own physical health and well-being. As we therapists often tell our clients, it need not be so black and white! Naturally, the same can be said of our own inclinations toward and adoption of teletherapy. While some may dabble with a handful of patients they see online already, others are newbies, anxious about the technology, but aware of what immense benefits could be derived. Having recently made the full-time plunge into teletherapy, I can confidently say that while it can be challenging, its benefits can easily outweigh its downsides. Teletherapy certainly is not for every therapist or even demographic; as a millennial myself who treats teens and fellow millennials, the technology comes fairly naturally and is really not so radically different from live therapy in person. In part one of this series, I outlined the countless benefits of teletherapy for clients. In this second part, I shift my focus primarily to therapists.
- Therapist Safety: An easy place to start this conversation pertains to the physical safety of therapists. Whether it is driving late at night in the dark, through severe weather, torrential downpour, or tornado watch conditions, there is no doubt that many a therapist has been caught in dangerous situations, hoping to see every last client and not wanting to cancel on or otherwise negatively impact therapeutic progress. I recall one session when my patient had made it in to the office due to a heavy-duty SUV during a snowstorm; I got a call from the office that my patient had arrived for their session. Meanwhile, living out toward the countryside, I had to decide whether to brave black ice or reschedule. I did eventually reschedule, but it was not without much internal anguish. While a minor example, it readily illustrates the conundrum many therapists wind up in when doing their best to accommodate clients.
- Therapist Can Live Remotely: Relatedly, teletherapy does allow therapists (and clients) to live outside of a major metropolitan area and still reach a range of clients. In many large cities, housing can frankly be unaffordable and unrealistic on a therapists’ salary. This forces them into less than ideal or unsafe living situations, or makes them live many miles away with long commute times (which is also not ideal for therapist mental well-being). Teletherapy completely erases this concern and the need to be tied to a large city and the problems that can come with crowding, noise pollution, and so forth.
- Commuting Hassles Eliminated: Commute times are often rated as one of the most influential aspects in one’s overall satisfaction with where they live. One needn’t live miles and miles away to benefit from eliminating traffic and other driving hazards. I recall one case in which a client got into a car accident on the way over to see me. A few years prior, I had gotten into a car accident on the way over to see my clients not more than 10 miles away at my office. Needless to say, this forced me to cancel the afternoon’s worth of patients, and as my bumper was falling off my car, I had my car in the shop for nearly a month. Not having strong access to public transportation, this made for a few challenging weeks of coordinating rides. Teletherapy eliminates such scenarios altogether. Furthermore, fewer cars on the road is always a good thing, leading to less pollution, cleaner air, and a greener environment overall.
- Scheduling Flexibility: To the first point discussed of accommodating patients during severe weather and against all obstacles, one of the biggest benefits of teletherapy for therapists is the ability to accommodate a larger range of appointment times with little to no impact on their well-being. Since going virtual, I can now see clients during the 5 p.m. hour, typically peak rush hour. Whereas in the past I would have been getting home at 6 p.m. exhausted and famished from an hour-long commute back, I now transition seamlessly into chopping up vegetables for dinner and have stopped going through an entire bag of Paleo Puffs during the drive back! Furthermore, when a client unexpectedly cancels, I can drop in a load of laundry, pay bills, write a Psychology Today post, or do any number of things that were more difficult to do in a corporate office setting. I can better accommodate clients with demanding and ever-changing schedules without ending up with an unexpected two-hour block of time where I could have gotten plenty of other work done.
- Therapist Hats Can Increase (Positively!): Relatedly, when time efficiency is increased, therapist ability to dabble in other professional endeavors is also improved which in turn makes for a more well-rounded therapist. We all know that when it comes to picking any professional, we prefer the one that is immersed in the latest developments and is constantly self-educating and growing. I’d much rather have my hair done by the gentleman flying to Miami to learn the latest cutting techniques than the lady who has been cutting hair the same way since 1985. As such, when therapists work virtually, it allows many new roles to open up. Perhaps you have been wanting to put together that PowerPoint to talk about eating disorders with student athletes. Or you’ve wanted to get additional training in EMDR. Maybe you want to teach an online course. The options are endless and there is finally time to do it! When you cut out one hour a week of commuting, that’s five precious hours right there that can easily be redirected to fulfilling professional endeavors and adjuncts to your therapy work.
- Therapist Overhead Decreases: One of the biggest sources of anxiety for many beginning private practitioners is overhead. Between rent, utilities, possibly the need to buy furniture, liability insurance and all the other costs of doing business, many therapists can quickly get overwhelmed and rule-out private practice altogether. Trying to build a caseload while paying for an office that is getting hardly used can be highly anxiety-provoking. Teletherapy can actually be a low- to no-cost way of experimenting with private practice on the side, as so many clinicians begin this way anyway. No need to coordinate borrowing an office for one day a week, or figuring out what location works best. Having personally had an office for several years, the hassles were countless. Too hot, too cold, stuffy air, front desk staff that was always changing. But once you are locked into a rent agreement, your ability to move to improve the environment for everyone’s sake is seriously diminished.
- Sick Building Syndrome Eliminated: While it may sound hokey, sick building syndrome is very real. I recall many an evening coming home with a pounding headache, nausea, dry skin, and a general malaise that I just couldn’t quite put my finger on. Was it the salad I ate? Maybe I didn’t hydrate enough. I kept trying and trying to change everything from my own habits to even how many patients I saw back to back (maybe I needed more air in my office between sessions!). Regardless, my office was never actually meant to be a solo space; although in a fancy executive suite, it was originally a conference room that was split into thirds; the HVAC controls were most definitely not in my office and the quality and quantity of air I had was a surprise each day. While I may be particularly sensitive to my environment, plenty of office workers suffer from environmental toxins in the workplace. Not having an operable window, for example, was a huge issue that I didn’t realize I even had. When going to rent my very own office space, I’d just been thrilled to find a nice, clean room and only later noticed what an impact this made on air quality.
- Exposure to Illness Diminished: Relatedly, especially during cold and flu season, teletherapy can be a lifesaver for both clients and therapists. During the cold winter months, sharing tight quarters with ill patients with poor airflow is a perfect recipe for sick days. While many employees rejoice at the excuse to stay home, for the self-employed, sick days are never paid and can have a challenging domino effect on the caseload at large. I have had clients come in with active cases of mono, and even had my office fumigated when a client with an active case of scabies came in. Another time a client had been told by the on-campus doctor that they were to be quarantined in their dorm; unsurprisingly, they came in for their session with me anyway. As we can’t always expect others to exercise best judgment in such scenarios, limiting exposure altogether can be helpful. Further, for clinicians who themselves may be a sensitive population (e.g., pregnant) exposure to flu viruses can be highly dangerous.
- Employment Opportunities for Special Population Therapists: Speaking of pregnant women, another major benefit of teletherapy is in fact that pregnant women can continue to safely practice therapy while having adequate access to breaks and resting in a way that an office environment might not be fully suited to support. Those who are semi-retired, or have other physical limitations can still see patients just as any other therapists would. It also allows for more opportunities for part-time therapists and working mothers who might have other barriers to being employed in a traditional office setting. The best part is that more therapists means more diversity and types of “fit” for prospective clients. Maybe a retired military man wants a therapist in his own demographic, or a young mother wants the support of a therapist who also knows what it is like to have children. Teletherapy can help connect these individuals and create a bridge that would otherwise not exist.
- Can Allow Alternative Way of Seeing Potentially Violent Patients: I was at a CEU on teletherapy when I was surprised to learn that the VA, military, and justice system have long been using virtual technologies before they became mainstream. Instead of having two prison guards accompany a patient to a therapy session and coordinate transportation, safety, and all the related factors, they simply brought the therapist to the patient via screen. While most therapists do not regularly see physically violent patients unless this is an area of specialty, there are scenarios where the safety of the therapist becomes a concern. I know that as a petite woman I have had sessions with men three times my size who have expressed angry sentiments towards others and have boasted of physically harming others. Naturally, this left me uneasy and as a clinic, we had to determine how to ensure my safety with such a patient. Having teletherapy as an option can be a low-risk way of connecting with patients in need who also might have a history of violence.
- Can Decrease Miscommunications: As mentioned in the prior post, teletherapy combined with online scheduling and billing systems can significantly decrease the risk of miscommunications. Appointment reminders can go out electronically, while patients can access and manage their appointments instantaneously. Back when I had an assistant, it created a third channel for which miscommunication and confusion to arise. There were phone calls and conversations where assistants said one thing and clients said something else. Trying to manage this impacted not only professionalism but put the therapeutic relationship and trust at risk. By having everything clear and in writing automated, such miscommunications are significantly decreased. Further, even front desk which might be considered harmless (when their only task was to notify the arrival of patients) would create problems when they failed to do their only job. This left patients waiting in the lobby for much longer than necessary. With teletherapy, it is just you and your client without any other barriers.
- Therapist Anonymity Increased: One of the amazing things about teletherapy is the ability to work across an entire state where you are licensed. Depending on how large your state is, this means you can be listed in cities where you do not live or might be hours away from. A constant concern for many therapists (and clients alike) is the fear of running into clients in public spaces. While most therapists have a conversation about this from the outset when they are from small towns, the reality is that these run-ins can be awkward and leave the therapist constantly ducking for cover. Working remotely, or even listing your city somewhere you do not live significantly increased therapist anonymity. I recall working with therapists who naturally became very protective when they had young children or spouses. They did not want that layer of their lives exposed to a particular client for reasons specific to the therapeutic work. Constantly being paranoid about run-ins can be taxing, and teletherapy can help to eliminate this.
- Access to Own Facilities: Finally, a noted benefit for clients and therapists is access to one’s own facilities, food, etc. Anyone who has worked from home even to do paperwork knows they eat healthier with their own refrigerator (and no access to vending machines!), and can even powernap to get more energy between tasks. The ability to open the window for fresh air in a home office, turn up the heat, and generally be more comfortable enables any therapist to truly work at their A game. Further, a common embarrassing truism that all therapists have struggled with at one point in time is the dreaded bathroom stall run-in! Such awkward moments disappear when therapists practice teletherapy from the comfort of their own home.
While certainly there can be disadvantages of teletherapy such as brief connection issues, or missing visual cues (i.e., I have seen many clients hobble into a session with a twisted ankle that I typically would not see on a computer screen), even isolation, the advantages are also plentiful. As this is an emerging area of practice, there is more research needed on the exact differences and similarities between virtual and in-person sessions. The fact that insurance companies are finally starting to provide identical coverage in some areas is a huge win, to say the least. For further resources on starting a teletherapy practice, see the references section below.