COVID-19 and Telepsychiatry: Development of Evidence-Based Guidance for Clinicians (Preprint)
Smith K., Ostinelli E., Macdonald O., Cipriani A.
BACKGROUND The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) presents unique challenges in health care, including mental health care provision. Telepsychiatry can provide an alternative to face-to-face assessment and can also be used creatively with other technologies to enhance care, but clinicians and patients may feel underconfident about embracing this new way of working. OBJECTIVE The aim of this paper is to produce an open-access, easy-to-consult, and reliable source of information and guidance about telepsychiatry and COVID-19 using an evidence-based approach. METHODS We systematically searched existing English language guidelines and websites for information on telepsychiatry in the context of COVID-19 up to and including May 2020. We used broad search criteria and included pre–COVID-19 guidelines and other digital mental health topics where relevant. We summarized the data we extracted as answers to specific clinical questions. RESULTS Findings from this study are presented as both a short practical checklist for clinicians and detailed textboxes with a full summary of all the guidelines. The summary textboxes are also available on an open-access webpage, which is regularly updated. These findings reflected the strong evidence base for the use of telepsychiatry and included guidelines for many of the common concerns expressed by clinicians about practical implementation, technology, information governance, and safety. Guidelines across countries differ significantly, with UK guidelines more conservative and focused on practical implementation and US guidelines more expansive and detailed. Guidelines on possible combinations with other digital technologies such as apps (eg, from the US Food and Drug Administration, the National Health Service Apps Library, and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) are less detailed. Several key areas were not represented. Although some special populations such as child and adolescent, and older adult, and cultural issues are specifically included, important populations such as learning disabilities, psychosis, personality disorder, and eating disorders, which may present particular challenges for telepsychiatry, are not. In addition, the initial consultation and follow-up sessions are not clearly distinguished. Finally, a hybrid model of care (combining telepsychiatry with other technologies and in-person care) is not explicitly covered by the existing guidelines. CONCLUSIONS We produced a comprehensive synthesis of guidance answering a wide range of clinical questions in telepsychiatry. This meets the urgent need for practical information for both clinicians and health care organizations who are rapidly adapting to the pandemic and implementing remote consultation. It reflects variations across countries and can be used as a basis for organizational change in the short- and long-term. Providing easily accessible guidance is a first step but will need cultural change to implement as clinicians start to view telepsychiatry not just as a replacement but as a parallel and complementary form of delivering therapy with its own advantages and benefits as well as restrictions. A combination or hybrid approach can be the most successful approach in the new world of mental health post–COVID-19, and guidance will need to expand to encompass the use of telepsychiatry in conjunction with other in-person and digital technologies, and its use across all psychiatric disorders, not just those who are the first to access and engage with remote treatment.