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Buyer Beware When Considering Online Therapy – Psychology Today

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There are many temptations to organize our life around the experience of earlier trauma. But that may short-change the future—which starts by our envisioning something better.
Verified by Psychology Today
Posted June 1, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
People are often surprised to learn that researchers have been investigating telehealth and online therapy since long before the pandemic. But despite the evidence demonstrating that online therapy can be as effective as face-to-face treatment, people had been reluctant to try it, with both therapists and the public worrying that it wasn’t as good.
The pandemic changed that.
As the world shut down and everything was forced to shift to virtual, including telehealth, everyone’s comfort with digital medicine shifted overnight. An APA survey showed the increase in telehealth after the start of the pandemic, and this did not go unnoticed by the tech industry. A record $5.5 billion was invested in the industry in 2021, according to CBInsights. Since then, more than 20,000 mental health apps have become available to download to your phone, with a slew of companies promising to help with your mental health—through therapy or counseling—at a fraction of the cost of traditional mental health providers.
When you pay for a therapy session with a regulated health care professional, you are not only paying for the session but for their office space, liability insurance, professional fees, documentation time, telehealth platform, computer equipment, taxes, sick time, vacation time, and more. It’s not cheap, but it is in line with what most consultants need to charge to make a living.
Some telehealth companies only charge $25-$90 per week for something that costs $200 or more with an individual therapist. But a quick search on Indeed.com or Glassdoor will show that most therapists working for large mental health platforms complain about being underpaid (sometimes as little as $20-$30/hr) or are late receiving payments or are hit with surprise deductions.
More concerning are the accusations about mining the data collected from therapy sessions and selling it to third parties who use it to target ads. And what about Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and patient-therapist confidentiality? You need to do your research. If the data was collected by the company and not by your therapist, that might be a loophole to share some of your data with third parties. They may also anonymize or de-identify your data and claim there were no breaches, although it is theoretically possible to link up the de-identified data with another data set and figure out who you are.
The biggest danger is that you may not get quality care, even if the therapist assigned to you tries really hard to provide it. These companies may be more interested in profits than effective treatment. Their goal is to keep clients engaged and keep subscription payments going.
Some therapists have reported that they were encouraged to upsell other features offered by the platform they worked for (something many regulatory bodies forbid). Some platforms make money by also selling and shipping medications prescribed by their tele-psychiatrists. Mental health programs shouldn’t be making a profit from the sale of products or treatments they recommend. If you make extra money selling a drug, then there is the risk of overprescribing.
Make sure you understand how a company will use your data and what security measures they have in place. Look at reviews on job sites to see what therapists or employees have to say about working there. You can do a search for a given platform’s “ethical issues” or “complaints” or “privacy.” You don’t have to be an expert on telehealth to determine if there might be any problems with a service that you decide to use.
You will find stories of dubious therapists with unverified credentials, complaints of unresponsive therapists, hidden charges, loopholes in the use of your information (e.g., the platform matches you with a therapist but doesn’t provide the therapy, so the initial data they collect on you isn’t protected by health care privacy laws). And the list goes on.
Most importantly, remember that you are the expert on your own mental health. If something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts and seek help from a qualified professional. Working with a registered therapist protects you in many ways: They are required to follow strict ethical guidelines, they can’t upsell you on products or services, and if there are any concerns about confidentiality or safety, you have avenues to pursue.
Digital mental health services can be a valuable resource, but it’s important to be an informed consumer. When you’re aware of the risks, you can make sure you’re getting the best possible care for your needs.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Christine Korol, Ph.D., is a registered psychologist, Director of the Vancouver Anxiety Centre, and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychology at UBC.
Get the help you need from a therapist near you–a FREE service from Psychology Today.
Psychology Today © 2022 Sussex Publishers, LLC
There are many temptations to organize our life around the experience of earlier trauma. But that may short-change the future—which starts by our envisioning something better.

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