Imagine this: Your child’s speech therapy session starts in 30 minutes. But instead of running around, loading the car and desperately trying to make it there on time, you settle in on the sofa with your son or daughter minutes before the session’s supposed to begin and click on the link that takes you to a secure site and opens up a portal. From here, the comfort of home, your child will have their hourlong session with the speech therapist.
This isn’t the future of science. It’s reality. Telemedicine connects health care providers and patients via computer or smartphone for diagnosis and treatment. Children’s Health in Dallas has been providing telehealth services to over 100 local schools in Dallas, Collin and Tarrant counties for a couple of years now, equipping nurses with high-definition videoconferencing and digital scopes so doctors from Children’s Health pediatric group can diagnose virtually, even write electronic prescriptions.
“Technology is the most efficient way for us to deliver our expertise to children no matter where they are — at home or school,” says Julie Hall-Barrow, vice president of virtual health and innovation at Children’s Health.
And this anywhere-and-everywhere idea is gaining traction in other areas of treatment too, like therapies, which Children’s Health is currently exploring.
Aiden Kenny, now 9, lives in Keller and started specialized therapy when he was just 4 months old. The only caveat? The weekly auditory verbal therapy (AVT), designed to prepare the infant and his entire family for the cochlear implants he received just before his first birthday, was a two-hour drive away (the family lived in Ohio at the time). But the therapist offered a lifeline: He would perform the therapies virtually if they would be his telehealth guinea pigs, so to speak.
Fast-forward nearly a decade, and a University of Iowa study published late last year in the journal Pediatrics shows that children with special needs, and especially those on the autism spectrum, may greatly benefit from telehealth services. That’s because the therapies and appointments can take place in a child’s home without disruption to their routine and in a space where they feel safe.
Telehealth as a whole is a field that is growing at a rapid pace. In 2014, about $17 billion was invested in the industry. That number is projected to more than double by 2020. That means as many as 300 million doctor and therapist visits would take place virtually every year. And so more doctors and therapists are starting to offer virtual services now. Google “Dallas-Fort Worth therapist videocouseling,” and you get several options already.
One being Dr. Anthony Bean, a psychologist who runs Bean Professional Psychological Services in Fort Worth. He’s been offering his clients — many of them adolescents on the spectrum — videocounseling services for almost two years.
He’s definitely a fan but is quick to point out that diagnosing and treating patients virtually is not without its limitations.
“It’s a practice that takes some getting used to,” he says. “When I sit with a patient in a room, I can feel the energy and my intuition is keener. When my patient is on the other side of a webcam, I have to work harder, ask more clarifying questions. It’s not impossible; it just requires more effort.”
There’s also the issue with insurance: Most providers don’t cover out-of-office therapy sessions — yet. Bean’s clients pay out of pocket for the virtual services he offers (he charges $125 for a 45-minute session). But that’s likely to change over the next few years as virtual health continues to grow. In fact, some insurance companies are alredy beginning to cover in-network virtual visits for minor health concerns such as allergies.
But virtual visits can be extremely beneficial for conditions beyond common ailments. Bean says the practice is especially helpful for his patients on the low end of the autism spectrum, those battling depression and those with anxiety.
Plus, teletherapy sessions make treatment a family affair. Aiden is set to begin speech therapy, and while the family is no longer far from specialists and therapists, they know that allowing Aiden to have his therapies at home, with the entire family present, makes it that much easier for everyone to better support him.
“In many ways [teletherapy] is more effective,” says Tammy Kenny, Aiden’s mom. “We did the therapy in his playroom, with his toys. He moved around instead of being in a chair.”
Kenny says the teletherapy setup is more enjoyable for Aiden and empowering for her. “In actuality, it put me more in charge because the therapist wasn’t sitting right there. I became better for Aiden.”