The Road Online to Empowered Clients and Providers
As managed care has swept through many health care systems in the 1990’s, it has led to an emphasis on outcome research and improving client outcomes with definable, clear treatment goals. This emphasis has led to shorter treatment periods and often, more paperwork. It also means that professionals providing mental health services often have less time to discuss everything they’d like to in session. In addition to researching symptoms or treatment modalities online, clients can also turn to the Web for access to medication databases. If the client forgot something told to them, or the psychiatrist failed to mention a specific side effect, the client can easily go online, look up the medication, and read in great detail all about it. This simply wasn’t readily available to do before the Web came along, and can help answer a lot of common questions about a medication’s specific side effects and expectations of what to expect from a medication.
Databases made available through the Web also help professionals too. A psychiatrist can go online and check drug interactions quickly and more easily than looking them up in some large tome that may or may not be updated with the most recent information. When the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health brought the venerable MEDLINE medical research database online, a great deal of free research information was made available. Now a research citation can quickly be looked up online, rather than trudging off to a local university or medical school library. Professionals can quickly stay up to date on the latest advances, and as more and more journals offer the full-text of their articles online, professionals have the potential to stay more current than ever before.
Other databases of information are also made more readily available through a Web interface. The American Self-Help Clearinghouse’s Sourcebook3 of self-help support organizations across the country and around the world makes it much easier to find a real-life support group in one’s community, or learn how to start one if none exists. Similar databases of encyclopedia health information, glossaries, and medical dictionaries are also available online. Many of these types of resources weren’t even available or accessible before the Internet at your local public library.
Interactive Quizzes & Support Groups
Interactive online quizzes have made it possible for someone who suspects they have a problem in a specific area to get immediate feedback on their symptoms. This immediate feedback provides clients with a valuable resource, even if the results of the quiz are not always as empirical or as accurate as an in-depth intake evaluation by a trained mental health professional or a standard paper-and-pencil measure. The fear of the unknown, of suspecting a problem without knowing whether you have one or not, is often as debilitating as the disorder itself can be. While some of these quizzes are not as accurate as their paper-and-pencil brethren, others are empirically based and validated. They also open the door to potential treatment, encouraging the client to seek out professional assistance if the questions answered suggest a possible diagnosis. Since the U.S. Surgeon General’s Mental Health Report (4) in 1999 showed that most people who qualify for a mental health diagnosis never seek out professional treatment, any method that may increase the number of people who are encouraged to seek treatment must be examined. Interactive quizzes are one such method.
These quizzes can also be used in another manner. Some measures are available online that allow an individual to monitor and track their scores on the quiz over time (see PsychTests.com for examples). Such measures allow clients, whether they are in treatment or not, to track the progress of their moods and symptoms to see whether they are noticing improvement. These measures offer immediate feedback, psychometrically validated, and are available to the client for the taking at any time.
Online support groups offer the Internet-savvy client the chance to talk to others who suffer from a similar disorder as their own. The positive, therapeutic effect of peer-run, self-help support groups is well-documented5. As available online, they offer a greater range of variety from which to choose, as well as the convenience of participating in them as one’s schedule allows. Often a person will turn to an online support group before seeking out professional treatment. The group can advise the client on different treatment modalities available, what to expect from a competent and caring therapist, and what possible medications (and their side effects) are available. Offered in a more opinionated and personalized manner than the objective information found on a Web site, the social nature of the support group often makes the information more digestable and easier to understand. The members of the group are speaking in a language that every other member understands (often very unlike when professionals speak to clients). In addition, every member knows that most other members have been there themselves, making it feel like they “are all in this together.” That group effect usually has a positive, beneficial impact for each of its members.