With all of the talk and excitement about online therapy, one important factor has been largely overlooked. That is, how can a person be sure the online counselor is who she says she is? Is there any way to verify an online therapist’s credentials and their identity?
Up until now, such verification has been done on an individual-by-individual basis. If you wanted to check out an online therapist before giving them your life story and your money, you could do so. Some online therapists make it extremely easy to check them out, while others make it extremely difficult. Martha Ainsworth, on Metanoia, has been trying to verify some minimal credentials in her comprehensive, large listing of online therapists. But this is a very time consuming and somewhat costly process, and one she could not afford to continue doing easily alone.
So, Martha and I teamed up to offer the first and only official credentialing service for online therapists — Credential Check (now defunct). For a minimal annual fee, therapists send us their information and photocopies of certain documents. We verify the information and documents sent to us with academic institutions, professional associations and state licensing agencies. Then we provide the online counselor with a badge which links back to a Web page on our secure server with all of the relevant information we have verified. What this means is that if you’re looking for an online therapist, this badge will be your guarantee that you are getting what you paid for. If Dr. XYZ says he is a psychologist, we’ve checked it out and verified that Dr. XYZ is indeed a psychologist. If Ms. ABC says she received her Master’s degree from Harvard University in 1978, we’ll verify that she does indeed have a Master’s degree from Harvard.
What Credential Check doesn’t do is say that you need a certain degree or license in order to practice some type of counseling online. We’re not in a position to judge online therapy providers in that manner, because that would need to be backed up by research which doesn’t yet exist. Technically, anyone can hang out a virtual shingle in the online world and advertise “online therapy” services. Because of that, there may be some unscrupulous individuals who will attempt to just get your money while offering little in return for it. We check these people out and can even help mediate disputes between you and the online counselor if things don’t go quite right. We’re kind of like the “Better Business Bureau” for online therapy!
Plans are in progress to take this one step further and actually check out the quality of the online therapy or advice received by each provider. This is a much larger undertaking and will be quite expensive in the long run. However, we feel that this is the only true way to gauge the usefulness of what is being offered by the various providers.
So if you’re looking for online therapy, look for the new Credential Check badge. If you’re in counseling with an online therapist now, encourage that person to apply for this service. We believe it will help make choosing an online therapist that much simpler and guarantees you’re getting who you paid for.
As an aside, I just got back from the American Psychiatric Association’s annual convention, this year held in beautiful San Diego, California. I have a great article in the making which will appear on Psych Central in a few more days about the continued crass commercialism which goes on in the exhibit hall by the pharmaceutical companies marketing only certain, highly profitable (and often newer) medications. I can’t remember seeing a single pharmaceutical company marketing any tricyclic antidepressants in this huge exhibit hall, despite the fact that they are (a) cheaper than SSRIs, (b) have been shown to be equally as effective as SSRIs, and (c) have a different, but not altogether worse, side-effect profile than SSRIs (e.g., would you rather have dry mouth (tricyclics) or inability to achieve orgasm (SSRIs)?). Guess which is more profitable? Anyway, more about this later on MHN.
I wanted to note I attended a number of lectures and discussions while there, including one about a professional mailing list called “Psychopharmacology” hosted by noted online psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist, Ivan Goldberg, M.D. (who is also responsible for the popular Depression Central). This is an older and very popular mailing list for online mental health professionals of any sort, not just psychiatrists. Because of its high volume, though, it is often difficult to subscribe for long or to keep up with the discussions (it boasts over 1,000 subscribers throughout the world).
Robert Hsiung, M.D., also presented on his Psychopharmacology Tips Web site, which is a summarized, condensed and often sanitized version of the mailing list. It was interesting to hear the process in which “tips” are included on the Web site (e.g., whatever seemed to be of interest to Dr. Hsiung) and how they are edited to remove nearly all extraneous information (e.g., signature lines, miscellaneous text not directly related to the “tip”). I would think that, after hearing about all the care and attention which goes into creating these “tips,” the tips would be more useful than they appear. In the example he showed us during the presentation, for instance, the tip included information from professionals which directly contradicted one another. It still seems largely a crap shoot when it comes right down to prescribing psychopharmacological medications for various disorders.
The best part of this symposium, however, was the discussion of the new electronic journal co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association called Treatment. I look forward to reading it.
If you want the whole shi-bang of over 10,000 separate resources that have to do with psychiatry and mental health online, then you might want to visit Psych Central. It’s the largest and most comprehensive site of its kind in the world and we’re looking to build upon it in the upcoming years, acting as a super guide to mental health online. If you didn’t find what you needed here, look there next!