Telemental health services may not benefit everyone equally. The corresponding study was published in the Interactive Journal of Medical Research.
Telemental health is mental healthcare that is delivered via video calls, telephone calls, or text messages. The service provides access to mental healthcare to people who live in remote communities and has been useful in emergency situations that restrict face-to-face contact, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the present study, researchers reviewed 108 scientific and gray literature (materials such as working papers and government documents) sources alongside reports from a reference group including researchers, frontline clinicians, and users of mental health services.
They found that while telemental health can be effective in reducing treatment gaps and barriers by improving access, situational variations may determine an individual's response to telemental health services. These include variations in private and confidential space, the ability to develop therapeutic relationships, and internet connection quality.
The researchers thus noted that implementing telemental health could reenforce pres-existing inequalities in service provision ie. those who benefit less are people without access to the internet or phone, those who are socially or economically disadvantaged, have cognitive difficulties, auditory or visual impairments and severe mental health problems.
Professor Sonia Johnson from UCL and Director, NIHR MHPRU and senior author of the study said, "Our research findings emphasize the importance of personal choice, privacy and safety, and therapeutic relationships in telemental health care. The review also identified particular service users likely to be disadvantaged by telemental health implementation. For those people, we recommend a need to ensure that face-to-face care of equivalent timeliness remains available."
The researchers say that their findings have implications for clinical practice, service planning, policy, and research. They noted that if telemental health is to be incorporated into routine care, there must be a clear understanding of when and who it is best suited for, and for face-to-face care to be available when needed.
They further noted that guidelines and strategies for telemental healthcare should be co-produced with service users and frontline staff to optimize their implementation in real-life settings.