What is the Standard of Care for Telepsychiatry?

on the phone at the desk

Telehealth is increasingly being adopted by providers, patients, hospitals, and clinics as a great way of providing access to much needed healthcare.  Policymakers and lawmakers have generally fallen behind the current practice and therefore there can be some uncertainty around what standard of care should apply.

Moreover, “Standard of care” can be subject to interpretation based on several factors, including, but not limited to:

  • Specialty or subspecialty, as it relates to the scope of practice of the provider
  • Circumstances of the care
  • Community in which care is being provided.

Notably, the applicable community is debatable in telehealth, as the doctor and patient care are in different geographic areas.

The prevailing opinion in telehealth circles is that the standard of care should be based on the location where the patient is located, however, this is not a hard and fast rule.  Each state has its own opinions about standards of care for telehealth and multiple jurisdictions can potentially apply.

As a provider, the best way to think about standard of care is to do what a reasonable and prudent provider do in similar circumstances.  Reasonable and prudent care often depends on several components, such as:

  • Patient case factors- although there are no absolute contraindications for telehealth, in rare cases the patient might object to the use of the technology for reasons such as paranoia/fear about being recorded or the technology being hacked, or difficulty keeping themselves in the frame of the camera due to cognitive issues. Also, if the patient is intellectually disabled and does not understand what is going on, perhaps thinking that they are watching TV.
  • Setting to which care is being delivered- the environment is noisy, distracting, or not private, this can affect the quality of care provided.
  • Types of technologies being used- if the technology does not allow adequate audio or video, this brings down the quality of assessment and treatment.
  • Overall framework in which care is being provided- If telepsychiatry is conducted in the absence of other potentially important support for the patient.
  • Consent- consent requirements are determined by each state. Some states require specific verbal or written consent from the patient to conduct appointments via telehealth.  Others do not have this requirement or have not opined on it.
  • Limitations around AIMS testing. There are ways to conduct AIMS testing remotely, although the provider should be cognizant of potential limitations and this should be factored in the standard of care.

Telepsychiatry, more so than other specialties of telehealth, offers almost the same level of services as onsite psychiatry.  Therefore, the standards of care should be considered very similar.  In fact, some state medical boards (such as the Medical Board of California) make it clear that the standard of care is the same.

In reality, what a psychiatrist can do remotely may vary somewhat from what can be done in person.  For example, a psychiatrist examining a patient remotely through video cannot physically touch the patient to assess for physical conditions such as cogwheel rigidity.  In these cases, psychiatrists rely on onsite staff or other ways of obtaining a reasonable amount of information to make a diagnosis and adequate treatment plan.

Ultimately, standards of care can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and telehealth makes it even more vague and sometimes confusing.  Therefore, the provider should use their best judgment, considering clinical factors, their means to resources, and the overall nature of the care being provided.

Disclaimer- this article is our best effort to provide useful information and does not constitute legal advice.  Please make sure to consult with entities such as state medical boards, their malpractice carrier, and potentially legal counsel prior to practicing healthcare.

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