Lin, T., Stone, S. J., Heckman, T. G., & Anderson, T. (2021). Zoom-in to zone-out: Therapists report less therapeutic skill in telepsychology versus face-to-face therapy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychotherapy, 58, 449–459.
The COVID-19 pandemic has confronted psychotherapists with several challenges including rapidly switching their practice to using teletherapy (videoconferencing, phone, and other virtual media). The use of teletherapy in clinical work increased from 7.1% prior to the pandemic to 85.5% during the pandemic. And estimates suggest that at least one-third of clinical work will be performed by teletherapy post-pandemic. Over a third of psychologists reported that they lacked training in using teletherapy, and they believe that their skills in this domain are inadequate. Therapists have raised a number of concerns in past surveys including issues related to privacy, professional self-doubt, technological competence, challenges to the therapeutic relationship, and problems with implementing some interventions. In this survey of 440 therapists and trainees, Lin and colleagues were particularly interested in therapists’ perceptions of the impact of teletherapy relative to in person therapy on the therapeutic process and patient outcomes. Videoconferencing was the most frequently used modality by 73.56% of surveyed therapists. The survey asked if three broad areas of practice were affected by teletherapy compared to in person therapy. These areas included common therapeutic factors (level of therapist empathy, emotional expression, warmth, alliance bond), extra-therapeutic patient factors (the patient’s environment that impacted their ability to engage in homework or use prescribed resources), and perceived patient outcomes (therapist ratings of patient symptom reduction, satisfaction, clinical improvement). Therapists in the survey were representative of the population of therapists in the US, and 82% of them provided all their clinical work in recent months by teletherapy. Compared to in person therapy, therapists reported poorer skills related to common therapeutic factors (d = 0.86), somewhat greater impact of extra-therapeutic factors (d = 0.36), and perceived poorer patient outcomes (d = 0.68) in teletherapy. Therapists who were younger, preferred emotion-focused or relational therapies, and with no prior training reported a relatively greater decrease in therapeutic skills in teletherapy compared to in-person therapy.
By far, most therapists believed that providing psychotherapy by virtual means reduced their capacity to use common therapeutic stances including empathy, warmth, and the therapeutic alliance. Some of this might be affected by the psychological distance caused by the virtual format and difficulties with reading body language and other non-verbal cues. Therapists perceived that patient outcomes suffered as a result. This was particularly true for younger therapists, possibly because of the impact of adopting the new modality on their professional self-confidence. Also, therapists who preferred experiential or interpersonally based therapies felt particularly challenged possibly because these therapies may be more reliant on emotional communication and discerning patient interpersonal behaviors. Training and support are needed for therapists and trainees to improve their confidence in providing teletherapy.