Healthcare Technology Featured Article

September 30, 2020

Online Counselling: Is Security an Issue When Using one or more of the Online Counselling Platforms?

Are you considering signing up with an online counseling platform? If so, are you concerned about the ethics of online therapy and the security measures taken to protect both you and your therapist?

These questions are valid and deserve a considered response.

Let’s explore these issues to answer them.

At the outset of this discussion, it is worth noting that state and federal laws apply to online and face-to-face therapy. In summary, these laws are packaged as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA. Therefore, it stands to reason that if you sign up with a licensed psychotherapist, your personal details and medical history are required to remain confidential by federal law.

What about the online platform security? How do online counseling platforms protect their user data? Are there any security shortcomings? If so, what?

In summary, online platforms must comply with the laws packaged in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

However, as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s famous line in The Sound of Music states, “let’s start at the beginning. It’s a very good place to start.”

What is online or teletherapy?

Online therapy is defined as psychotherapy that involves patient-to-therapist interactions via a digital platform instead of in-office face-to-face therapy.

Online therapy occurs in one of two formats:

  • Real-time therapy via video or voice calls or a text messaging application
  • Time-delayed therapy via email or text messages that are not directly responded to

COVID-19: The benefits of online therapy

Even though online therapy has limitations, it is gaining traction, especially in the social distancing world of COVID-19.

One of the biggest challenges of the world we live in is the need to social distance in an attempt to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Federal and state governments cannot allow the Reproduction or R number to climb above 1.

What is the R rate?

In summary, the Reproduction number is a way of determining a disease’s ability to spread. In other words, it’s the average number of other people that can be infected by one contagious person. Statistics show that measles has an R rate of 15. Therefore, one individual has the capability of spreading measles to 15 other people.

Even though the coronavirus only has an average R rate of 3, it has already affected over 33 million people worldwide and resulted in about 998 500 deaths. The most significant difference between measles and the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is an effective measles vaccine, while scientists are still working hard at developing a vaccine for the coronavirus.

Finally, there is no natural immunity in the world’s population against the SARS-CoV-2 virus as it is a new (novel) virus. Some countries like the UK and Sweden initially chose to pursue a route of controlling the virus through herd immunity. As an aside, the UK soon moved to contain the virus’s spread through implementing mandatory lockdown and social distancing regulations.

Statistics show that there has been an increase in the number of people that are experiencing mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. This is primarily due to the need to social distance for extended periods and the physical and economic stresses caused by the pandemic.

People are social beings; consequently, the need to stay away from everyone else can cause serious mental health challenges or exacerbate existing mental illnesses. Ironically, this is the one negative of online therapy. It is not face-to-face. Therefore, there is no physical contact.

However, the need for psychotherapy in the pandemic far outweighs the negatives of online psychotherapy. One of the real benefits includes the ability to speak to a counselor from home while social distancing or social isolating.

Even though many countries have reduced their lockdown restrictions, allowing people to move around again, online therapy still has its merits. The biggest one is efficiency and time saving because you do not have to travel to your therapist’s rooms. Secondly, it doesn’t matter where in the world you are and where your therapist is, because you are connecting virtually, you can find a therapist that best suits your personality and challenges.

Online security

The article titled “COVID-19’s Impact on Cybersecurity” describes how “the COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations and individuals to embrace new practices such as social distancing and remote working.”

During these challenging times, while the world focuses on the physical and economic threats caused by the coronavirus, cybercriminals are also taking advantage of this crisis. There has been an increase in phishing attacks, malware, and ransomware attackers using COVID-19 as bait to impersonate brands, catching customers and employees.

Therefore, it is essential to be proactive when signing up for online therapy. Ensure that the online platform you choose is HIPAA-compliant and take the need to implement the latest encryption and cybersecurity best practices earnestly.

An excellent example of the need to implement the latest online security is the case of the online communications app, Zoom. The holding company was in the right place at the right time when the COVID-19 lockdowns started, and the product quickly became the digital meeting app of choice for many people.

The company also advertised that they had implemented end-to-end digital encryption so hackers could not break into the app during work meetings. It quickly because a target for a group of hackers known as Zoom bombers. Secondly, privacy issues have been highlighted, and “security researchers have unveiled some pretty serious vulnerabilities”.

This scenario has been a nightmare for Zoom with the latest recorded incident being a case where a church’s bible class was highjacked and child pornography was shared in the online class.

Final thoughts

The cybersecurity industry's main shortcoming is that it has to continue evolving as the hackers break through the latest firewalls and encryption methods. This scenario has devolved into a cycle where cybersecurity engineers and researchers develop new strategies. As soon as they are published and in production, hackers work hard at getting through these measures. The cycle continues.

Therefore, it is essential to ensure that the online therapy platform you sign up not only has implemented the latest cybersecurity and encryption best practices but continues to keep up with industry best practices and methods.

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