A Day in the Life of a Telepsychiatrist: Connecting with Children and Building Trust

By: James Varrell, M.D.

Originally published on Arizona Telemedicine Program 

As a child and adolescent psychiatrist practicing in person for a number of years, and eventually making the shift to telepsychiatry, I have observed the subtle differences and nuances between the two mediums of care.

In my experience, telepsychiatry can be particularly powerful when working with children and teens. I had one experience with a 15-year-old adolescent who was admitted to the hospital for the fourth time with continued severe abdominal pain that could not be attributed to a medical cause. The hospital staff was puzzled, as the diagnostic tests did not show any signs of ailments and there were no physical afflictions present in the child. Interestingly enough, the teen had already been evaluated by another psychiatrist at the hospital, who was unable to get the teen to “open up.”

However, a caring on-site staff member had noted the teen admired technology. She recommended that the telemedicine cart that was normally used in the ED be brought up to the teen’s room to connect him to a telepsychiatrist who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry. It was clear he felt much more at ease talking with me on a screen than he had been talking with his in-person providers. During our session, I was able to leverage his interest in technology, as well as my child and adolescent psychiatry experience, in order to ease his reservations about sharing his story.  I found that in the past the teen had seen his brother shot in the stomach, causing psychological trauma that resulted in his abdominal pain.

Just as my experiences have shown, the effect of technology on children in a clinical setting has been researched and shown to have positive impacts in a number of ways.  In one study, adolescents reported that telemedicine promoted a transfer of power and control by allowing them to feel more comfortable with terminating a consultation or walking out of it, that the process is more structured, and that the adolescents feel better informed when speaking with a telepsychiatry provider, which can result in a better understanding, sense of shared responsibility and better decision making.

Psychiatry & Telepsychiatry

Although telepsychiatry is almost identical to in-person psychiatry, there are small adaptations providers can make to facilitate responses, especially in the case of special populations, including children and adolescents. Provider flexibility is often the key to success. Slowing down your speech, communicating with gestures and remembering to not infantilize your speech when evaluating children can all contribute to establishing a more effective patient-provider relationship. I educate other telepsychiatrists about games they can play and questions they can ask to encourage children to interact with them more freely. It can also sometimes be beneficial to involve a child’s parents or an on-site facilitator in the session to observe interactions. These tactics have helped me gain trust and encourage meaningful responses from children I have treated through telepsychiatry.

In the case of the boy with stomach pain, instead of providing continued costly and time-consuming medical intervention, we were able to get him the appropriate psychiatric treatment after our conversation.

The best care, especially for children, adapts to the preferences and needs of each individual. Telemedicine is a fantastic tool for increasing specialty care options and making sure that every person can access the right provider and the right type of care for them.

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