From the Journals

Telehealth safe, effective for a challenging psychiatric disorder



Telehealth is safe and effective for the treatment of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and may even have an edge over in-person treatment, new research suggests.

 "My prediction is that 5 years from now, two-thirds to three-quarters of outpatient visits will be virtual because that is what the patients prefer," said Dr. Mark Zimmerman. Courtesy Dr. Mark Zimmerman

"My prediction is that 5 years from now, two-thirds to three-quarters of outpatient visits will be virtual because that is what the patients prefer," said Dr. Mark Zimmerman.

Investigators compared BPD outcomes with therapy delivered in person and via telemedicine and found comparable reductions in depression, anxiety, and anger symptoms as well as improved overall well-being and mental health.

The results also suggest a telehealth advantage with significantly better patient attendance vs. patients treated in-person.

“We found a large effect size of treatment in both groups, as well as comparable levels of satisfaction with treatment, symptom reduction, and improved functioning, coping ability, positive mental health, and general well-being,” study investigator Mark Zimmerman, MD, professor of psychiatry and human behavior, Brown University, Providence, R.I., said in an interview.

The study was published online Nov. 8 in the Journal of Personality Disorders.

‘No other option’

Most previous research investigating telehealth has occurred in outpatient, individual treatment settings and has not examined telehealth-delivered group therapy or partial hospitalization, the authors noted.

“Until the pandemic, we were delivering care in person, but when the pandemic began, because of public safety recommendations, we knew that we could no longer continue doing so,” said Dr. Zimmerman, director of the outpatient division at the partial hospital program (PHP), Rhode Island Hospital.

“In switching to a telehealth platform, we were concerned about patient safety and acceptability of delivering care in that manner, especially with patients with BPD, which is associated with impulsive behavior, self-harm, and suicidal behavior, among other problems,” he said. However “we had no other option” than to utilize a telehealth delivery mode, since the alternative was to shut down the program.

The investigators were “interested in whether or not virtual treatment in an acute intensive setting, such as a PHP, would be as safe, acceptable, and effective as in-person treatment.”

The study was part of the ongoing work of the Rhode Island Methods to Improve Diagnostic Assessment and Services.

Additional safety measures

Treatment, consisting of an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) treatment model – including intake assessments, individual therapy, psychiatric visits, and group therapy – was delivered by a multidisciplinary team via Zoom.

Dr. Zimmerman noted that the team implemented additional safety precautions, including having patients check in at the beginning of each day to indicate their location, not seeing patients who were out of state, and making sure all patients had a contact person.

In addition, beyond the therapist leading the group, another therapist was always available, overseeing groups and meeting one-on-one (virtually) with participants if they had been triggered by the group process and were highly distressed.

Patients were asked to complete a number of questionnaires, including the Clinically Useful Patient Satisfaction Scale (CUPSS) at the end of their intake session. The primary outcome measure was the Remission from Depression Questionnaire (RDQ-M).

The study was conducted between May 1 and Dec. 15 of 2020 and included 64 patients with BPD who were treated for the first time in the Rhode Island Hospital PHP. They were compared to 117 patients who participated in the in-person program during the same months in 2019.

Participant characteristics were similar – for example, three-quarters of the participants in both groups were female, and the mean age was 34 years.