Virtual consultations are beneficial for treating people with a mental health disorder, but doctors should still offer in-person appointments, experts have said.

Individuals struggling with their mental health tend to benefit from the flexibility of telemedicine, but it is “not a one size fits all solution”, the study has reported.

Scientists from King’s College London and University College London have found that online GP appointments have improved mental health services by reducing treatment barriers.

According to the researchers, people prefer to attend in-person consultations for various reasons, including bad internet connection and wanting access to a private and confidential space.

First author Dr Katherine Saunders said: “We live in an increasingly digital world, and the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the role of technology in mental health care.

“Our study found that, while certain groups do benefit from the opportunities telemental health can provide, it is not a one size fits all solution.”

She added: “Receiving telemental health requires access to a device, an internet connection and an understanding of technology.

“If real world barriers to telemental health are ignored in favour of wider implementation, we risk further embedding inequalities into out healthcare systems.”

Virtual consultations have been slammed for increasing pre-existing inequalities in service provision.

People at risk of being disadvantaged by online appointments include those with memory problems and vision or hearing impairments, the study has reported.

People with no access to the internet or a phone are also at a disadvantage when it comes to telemedicine, according to the research.

Joint author Professor Sonia Johnson said: “Our research findings emphasise the importance of personal choice, privacy and safety, and therapeutic relationships in telemental health care.

“The review also identified particular service users likely to be disadvantaged by telemental health implementation.”

She added: “For those people, we recommend a need to ensure that face-to-face care of equivalent timeliness remains available.”

Lead researcher Professor Alan Simpson said: “As well as reviewing a huge amount of research literature, in this study we also involved and consulted with many clinicians and users of mental health services.

“This included young people, those that worked in or used inpatient and crisis services, and those who had personal lived experience of telemental throughout the pandemic.”

He evaluated: “This gives this research a relevance that will be of interest to policy makers, service providers and those working in and using our services.”

Fellow academic Merle Schlief said: “Working entirely online to conduct this study gave us access to experts and stakeholders who we simply would not have been able to include if we had been working in-person, including people living and working internationally, and those who would have been unable to travel. This highlights one of the key strengths of technology.”

Read the study in full in the Interactive Journal of Medical Research.

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