What is Virtual Therapy?

Woman on a telehealth call on her computer

Virtual therapy offers effective treatment for various conditions and provides the benefits of convenience, accessibility, and increased privacy.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a big increase in the need for mental health services, as many people struggled with feelings of anxiety and depression. At the same time, therapists were unable to see patients in-person because of concerns about transmitting the disease. To meet the greater demand for mental health care and remain safe, many mental health providers began offering “virtual therapy” — talking with patients using the Internet and phone rather than in-person.

The pandemic is now fading away, but virtual therapy is here to stay. In this article, we’ll discuss the effectiveness of virtual therapy, what conditions can be treated, and who can benefit from using it.

Virtual Therapy Effectiveness

Virtual therapy, also known as online therapy or teletherapy, involves using a computer, phone, or tablet to connect with a mental health provider remotely. Virtual therapy can include voice calls or video sessions with a therapist using a website or mobile app. Software for virtual therapy must comply with requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects patient privacy. Please note that Blue Cross Vermont does not cover telemedicine services via email, facsimile, or non-HIPAA compliant software such as Skype or FaceTime.

Studies have found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is often used to treat conditions like anxiety and depression, is effective when delivered virtually. In-person and virtual therapy produced similar results, one study concluded. 

Another study of more than 27,000 patients in the United Kingdom found that virtual therapy got people into treatment faster. Their quality of life improved more quickly, which in turn meant that they used fewer healthcare services. 

Virtual therapy can be especially helpful for patients who have difficulty getting to a therapist’s office, and for people living in rural areas where there are relatively few mental health providers.

Blue Cross Vermont members can use the virtual therapy services that we partner with — Amwell, Valera Health, and SonderMind — to easily connect with a psychologist or counselor. Appointments are available seven days a week. Some online providers offer mental health care services around the clock.

The addition of virtual therapy services has expanded members’ access to mental health providers, says Dr. Tom Weigel, chief medical officer of Blue Cross Vermont. Dr. Weigel is a board-certified clinical child psychiatrist and was previously medical director for the Vermont Department of Mental Health. 

“With virtual therapy and medication management now more accessible to our members, these expanded services aim to foster well-being and resilience amidst the many challenges of day-to-day life,” Dr. Weigel says. “The benefits of virtual therapy for patients include convenience, accessibility, flexibility in scheduling, comfort of receiving therapy from home, potential cost savings, and increased privacy,” he says.

What Conditions Can Be Treated?

A wide variety of conditions can be treated using virtual therapy. They include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Panic attacks
  • Insomnia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Couples therapy

“Virtual therapy is well suited for conditions like anxiety, depression, stress, relationship issues, and mild to moderate mental health concerns,” says Dr. Weigel. “It can also be beneficial for individuals with fears of leaving the home or physical disabilities.”

Who Can Benefit?

Virtual therapy can be a good option for people who:

  • Live long distances from therapists’ offices
  • Have difficulty arranging for childcare or need to stay home with their children
  • Are too busy during the workday to take time off
  • Need to work around school schedules, sports, and other activities
  • Would prefer to see a therapist at night or on the weekend, when they have more time
  • Are uncomfortable going to a therapist’s office
  • Experience chronic pain and can’t travel
  • Prefer to communicate via email, text, or video sessions 

One of the biggest benefits of virtual therapy is its flexibility. With quick access to therapists, some patients use it for their short-term needs while they look for an in-person provider. Other patients prefer the convenience of virtual therapy and plan to use it for longer periods of time. 

“Online therapy can be used both short-term and long-term,” Dr. Weigel says. “Some patients may find it sufficient for ongoing treatment, while others may prefer transitioning to in-person therapy for deeper or ongoing issues. Regular assessment of progress and therapeutic needs is essential to determine the most appropriate course of action.”

To learn more about virtual therapy options available to Blue Cross Vermont members, please visit our mental health telemedicine support page