Can clinicians operate with only a virtual office? Do they need physical offices anymore? Who wins the telehealth vs. in-person behavioral health debate?
The answers to these questions will vary widely among providers. The COVID pandemic has resulted in an explosion in telehealth. Along with this has come an increased interest among behavioral health practices in operating as telehealth-only offices, without any brick-and-mortar presence. But there are many issues to consider before eliminating your physical office.
Here we outline some of the main considerations when deciding whether to go all-virtual.
Reducing Overhead: In-person vs. Telehealth
Lease payments are generally one of the largest overhead items providers have to contend with. Eliminating those payments by becoming a fully virtual office can be a very tempting proposition. For many practices, this is the biggest factor when comparing telehealth vs. in-person behavioral health.
Against the desire to maximize profits, you should also balance whether you intend to return to a physical office in the future. While the coronavirus pandemic continues, telehealth will likely continue to be common and popular. But how much will that trend continue once the pandemic subsides? And are there other reasons that you want to retain the option of returning to in-person appointments?
This is where you need to consider any flexibility in your current rental arrangement. You may be able to negotiate with your landlord and reduce your rent. Or you may be able to negotiate a part-time rental, such as only using the physical office 2-3 days per week.
Also, think about the overall desirability of your current office lease. For example, your leased office space may be relatively inexpensive for the local market. Or the location may be an important factor. Consider its worth and the risk of settling for a less desirable space if you give up your current lease and decide to return to physical office later.
Advantages of Behavioral Telehealth
Another draw of a virtual office is the potential to focus on telemedicine instead of in-person treatment. There are several benefits for practices to consider:
- Health Concerns in the COVID Era
While the COVID pandemic continues, both you and your patients may have health concerns and prefer the social distancing aspect of telehealth. Even with vaccination rates on the rise, the risk of breakthrough infections and the emergence of COVID variants may give pause to many patients. Virtual sessions will likely maintain a natural advantage over in-person sessions until the pandemic subsides.
- Provider Preferences
For you as a provider, conducting telehealth appointments from the comfort of home has many built-in benefits. You gain the convenience of eliminating a commute, allowing for more flexibility in your schedule. And from a treatment perspective, telehealth has proven to be as effective as in-person treatment.
- Patient Preferences
Many of your patients will also enjoy the convenience of behavioral health treatment from the comfort of their homes. In addition, our society has adapted to remote settings in so many other realms, such as Zoom meetings for work and school, that receiving therapy in a similar fashion is often a natural fit.
A clinician shifting to a virtual office should also consider ways to optimize the telethealth patient experience. This process includes optimizing the equipment, setting, and telehealth software that you put in place.
Potential Limitations of a Telehealth-Only Practice
A virtual office that provides teletherapy only may also have drawbacks that are not immediately obvious. Here are a few common ones to consider in the telehealth vs. in-person behavioral health debate.
- Patient Preferences and Discomfort with Technology
You should strongly consider whether your current patients will want to move to telehealth exclusively. Many patients will find in-person sessions the preferable option, if not the sole option. Discomfort with technology may be a factor in their preference.
- Potential Limitations in Quality of Care and Treatment with Telehealth
Although telehealth is popular and has proven effective, there are potential limitations in the quality of care and treatment that it allows. Many providers may miss seeing the full range of clinical inputs from in-person therapy. The ability to observe a patient’s full-body reactions can be critical for effective treatment, and a screen-size view of their face or upper body may not be sufficient.
- Health Plan Coverage of Telebehavioral health
You should inquire into health plan coverage for behavioral health services provided by telehealth-only offices. Each plan is likely to have a different policy, so be sure to check with the plans that typically pay you. And the policies may change with the ebb and flow of the COVID pandemic.
- Keeping the In-Person Option as a Competitive Advantage
Even with the increasing trend toward telehealth-only offices, there will still be many patients who continue to prefer in-person sessions. Accordingly, practices providing in-person options will have a competitive advantage. Consider whether you want to give up that advantage by going fully virtual.
A virtual office creates the possibility of serving patients no matter where they are. However, this also opens up some jurisdictional issues providers will need to consider if any of their patients are out-of-state.
You can only practice outside of the state where you are licensed under certain exceptions, such as when that state has a temporary practice provision or is part of an interstate compact, such as PSYPACT. The best thing is to find out where your patient is located before each session, so this issue is front and center, as well as to research your state’s licensing requirements. Additional information for psychiatrists can be found here.
Valant’s Telehealth Solution for Your Virtual Office
Whether or not you decide to go all-virtual, Valant’s EHR and telehealth solution can provide the support you need for a successful virtual offering. Our secure, HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform is fully integrated and easy to use for providers and patients.
To find out how Valant can help your therapy office – whether it’s virtual, physical, or a hybrid – request a personalized demo today.