Virtual therapy is therapy that takes place via the phone, an app, a video chat, or even a virtual reality device.

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These virtual therapy options allow people to seek treatment in the comfort of their own home, without having to travel to see a therapist in person.

There are different types of virtual therapy, each of which has various benefits and limitations. Keep reading to find out more.

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If a person is geographically isolated, virtual therapy can increase their access to care.

Virtual therapy is a type of telemedicine. It includes any treatment that a person seeks through an electronic device.

Some examples of virtual therapy include:

  • talking to a practitioner via videoconferencing software
  • using an app to access therapy
  • phone- and email-based therapies, such as when a physical therapist suggests specific exercises via email
  • the use of online devices to assess clients or patients remotely — for instance, when a speech therapist uses online tools to measure progress

In theory, any treatment that does not require physical contact or laboratory testing can work on a virtual platform.

The most prevalent types of virtual therapy include:

Virtual psychotherapy

Virtual psychotherapy, sometimes called telemental health or telepsychology, treats people with mental health issues, relationship or sexual health problems, or significant stress via video chat, email, phone, text messaging, or email.

In most virtual psychotherapy sessions, a licensed therapist provides traditional therapy through a new platform. A client might talk about their emotions, seek insight on their relationships, and ask for help implementing lifestyle changes.

A newer form of virtual psychotherapy uses apps or coaching to improve mental health. This approach is not a form of traditional therapy because a person does not get care from a licensed practitioner. Instead, they might monitor their own symptoms over time, get virtual coaching from a bot, or receive daily mental health tips.

Virtual physical therapy

Virtual physical therapy offers traditional care but in an online or phone-based setting. A physical therapist might discuss recent symptoms, recommend exercises, or administer screenings.

In some cases, a therapist might ask a client to perform exercises and then use a camera to evaluate their form and progress.

Some physical therapy apps complement therapy by offering additional exercises or allowing a client to track their progress between sessions. A person can use these apps alongside virtual or in-person therapy.

Virtual speech therapy

Virtual speech therapy can treat a range of speech disorders, such as a stutter, aphasia from a stroke, or pronunciation difficulties.

In a virtual session, a therapist may evaluate a person’s speech, offer them strategies for correcting speech issues, or help them practice new speech patterns. An emerging form of virtual speech therapy uses bots in place of real people to improve speech.

Virtual speech therapy apps are also available to help people work toward their speech goals between sessions or track speech changes over time.

Virtual occupational therapy

Occupational therapy helps people master specific life skills. People often use it in conjunction with other types of treatment. For example, a person with speech issues resulting from a stroke might choose speech therapy, then use occupational therapy to help them master the motor skills necessary to use a speech assistive device.

In virtual occupational therapy, a therapist offers coaching, tips, and feedback on techniques on a virtual platform, such as via video chat. Some forms of virtual occupational therapy may also use virtual reality to mimic real-world situations that the individual might face.

A client or healthcare professional considering virtual therapy should evaluate the pros and cons:

Benefits

Virtual therapy is relatively new, and researchers have not thoroughly tested every type of treatment. However, preliminary research suggests that it could be effective.

For example, a 2020 study of virtual physical therapy following knee surgery found that virtual therapy offered similar benefits to in-person treatment. It also significantly lowered costs.

The authors of a 2017 systematic review also suggested that telemental health services provide a quality of care and outcomes similar to those of traditional mental healthcare.

Some other benefits of virtual therapy include:

  • Increased access to care: People who have physical disabilities, are geographically isolated, or do not have time to drive to therapy can access treatment with virtual options.
  • More privacy: Well-managed virtual therapy means that a person can get care in the privacy of their own home, without having to sit in a waiting room or interact with other clients.
  • Cost savings: Virtual therapy may cost less. The overheads may be lower for the therapist, particularly if they switch to an exclusively online model of care.
  • Client satisfaction: Most research on satisfaction following virtual therapy suggests that clients are at least as satisfied with it as they are with traditional care. For some people, seeking virtual care may be less stressful, greatly increasing satisfaction.

Disadvantages

Some drawbacks of virtual therapy include:

  • Data concerns: If a therapist chooses the wrong platform or does not encrypt therapy sessions, a third party might violate a client’s privacy. If a client seeks care on a public network or leaves their computer unlocked, their colleagues or housemates may be able to view their sessions.
  • Relationship concerns: Depending on the modality the client chooses, it may be harder to form a trusting relationship with the therapist. For instance, email-based therapy removes body language and voice tone cues, potentially causing communication issues.
  • Technological limitations: Slow networks, low quality video, and chat delays can make therapy more difficult.
  • Technological expertise and philosophy: People who are not comfortable with technology may feel less comfortable with or more anxious about virtual treatment.

Some research suggests that virtual therapy may reduce healthcare costs. Therapists may charge less because they have fewer overhead costs. As telehealth can improve access, it can potentially reduce long-term costs, as a person may get the preventive care that they need and experience fewer serious health issues.

Virtual therapy is likely to lower secondary costs, too, such as car maintenance, gas, childcare, or lost time at work.

However, not all virtual therapists charge less for telehealth sessions. Medicare recipients, for example, usually pay the same price that they would pay for in-person care.

Not all insurers cover virtual care, and no widespread set of standards requires them to cover it. Anyone considering virtual therapy should discuss coverage options with their insurance provider or explore different payment options.

To practice telemedicine, a person must be a licensed professional. Providers may face licensing issues, especially when they practice across state lines.

Each state licensing board establishes its own rules, so clients should check licensing laws and ask about their therapist’s license.

When a company offers support via an app or advice from an unlicensed professional, they generally must clarify that they are not offering medical care. For instance, a mental health app that offers daily mental health tips cannot claim to be providing psychotherapy.

Virtual therapy is a great option when a person does not want to leave home or cannot or should not, as in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As with any other treatment, it is important to check the credentials of the provider, establish clear goals, provide feedback about whether it is working, and switch providers if the treatment is ineffective.