A 2019 report shows nearly 40% of Michiganders living with mental illness don't receive care. The state also faces a shortage of mental health care providers.
Some experts point to teletherapy as a form of technology that could help to close the mental health care gap.
In Jeff Chicoski's office you won't find any patients on his couch, instead they connect via video. It's like Facetime or Skype, but with a therapist.
Chicoski is the co-founder of Teletherapy Group, a practice he launched in 2017 after spending years researching the effectiveness and validity of providing counseling through videoconferencing. According to its website, Teletherapy Group provides therapy services to clients in an environment where they feel most comfortable.
"We were the first in the state of Michigan to be exclusively teletherapy," Chicoski said.
Chicoski said he uses encrypted HIPAA compliant videoconferencing tools to meet with clients anywhere in the state of Michigan. Through the online environment, he said, he serves clients who traditionally have barriers to accessing care.
"It's not a novelty form of therapy," Chicoski said. "It's actually an effective form of therapy where they never thought possible."
Experts said videoconferencing can be an invaluable tool for providing mental health care to people in rural areas.
"It's part of a larger, patchwork of things we're trying to do in the short-term to mitigate the shortage issue," said Dr. Michael Redinger, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Western Michigan University's Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. Redinger also serves as co-chief of the school's program in medical ethics, humanities and law.
Redinger said teletherapy can serve an important purpose. Yet while the technology improves access to care, it does not address the problem at its core, the shortage of care providers.
"The data indicates that technology isn't a barrier to providing high quality care; but the challenge is, even with those efforts, it's not going to address the fundamental issue of the physician shortage," Redinger said.
A statewide study found 25 of Michigan's 83 counties don't have a single psychiatrist. Ten of those counties don't have a psychologist either.
Chicoski said he doesn't see teletherapy as a replacement for traditional therapy, but an additional asset, if it's done right.
"We have an opportunity to help a lot of people. If we're not doing it the right way, it can be seen as a novelty, or something people are hesitant to seek," Chicoski said.
An important part of teletherapy is cyber security. Chicoski said he designed his own videoconferencing software to ensure patient data is secure and HIPPA compliant. HIPAA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal law requiring that health care providers and organizations ensure patients’ health information is kept private.
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