Works in Progress - Spring 2010

Cyber Counseling

By Eliot Folsom | June 27, 2013


Doctors already use videoconferencing technology to beam themselves into remote emergency rooms and battlefields. But can a webcam fill the role of the therapist’s couch? U.S. Army researchers say yes.

In October, 520 soldiers returning from a 15-month deployment in Afghanistan took part in a study at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii. The goal was to compare virtual counseling with traditional face-to-face counseling. Two-thirds of the soldiers were assessed using high-definition video or “Skype-like” technology; one- third was assessed face-to-face.

Data from the unclassified study, which is designed to measure effectiveness, satisfaction, and rate of referrals, suggest that screen-to-screen sessions are just as effective as those conducted in person. Ninety-five percent of soldiers and specialists reported that they were satisfied with the process, and 75 percent said online assessments should be “shipped down range” (Army jargon for “used more often”).

What’s more, the study showed that soldiers may be more likely to speak candidly via webcam than face-to-face. The rate of behavioral health referrals more than doubled to 18 percent, and referrals for medical conditions increased as well.

Many soldiers didn’t mention their physical concerns until the end of the 35-minute assessment, which may indicate that they grew more comfortable as the interview progressed. “Tele-med accomplishes three things,” says Brig. Gen. Richard W. Thomas, Army assistant surgeon general. “It expands access, reduces stigma, and enhances continuity of care.”

A second pilot is under way in Alaska, where a brigade of more than 4,000 troops will be screened via webcam in a matter of days. This larger-scale test will help the Army resolve technical kinks and confirm the positive results of the first report.

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