April 22, 2020

UCalgary Psychology Clinic deploys telehealth technology to keep its doors open

Switch to virtual services during pandemic a positive transition for patients, student therapists, and staff

Fred Rogers, from the TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood, was known to say: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Currently filling that role of helping people in the Calgary area who are experiencing difficulty with their psychological well-being is the University of Calgary Psychology Clinic. It has recently moved to a virtual model of providing psychological services to those in need.

In 2017, the University of Calgary Psychology Clinic was launched with the intent of doing just as Mr. Rogers had suggested, to provide help to people, specifically those who were struggling with psychological challenges in their daily lives. As we all know, health is both physical and mental, and in times of great stress and fear our mental health can be under even greater duress. For many, that time is now as the world battles against the COVID-19 virus.

Speedy, successful transition to online therapy

Dr. Joshua Madsen

Joshua Madsen is the clinic director and supervisor of the UCalgary Psychology Clinic.

At the time of the COVID-19 outbreak, the clinic was fully staffed and operational and there were more than 15 student therapists providing individual, family, and group therapy. Upon learning that the campus (and therefore the physical clinic space) would likely close, clinic staff jumped into action and within two weeks had successfully transitioned from in-person to fully online, secure therapy allowing clients who wished to continue with treatment to do so.

The clinic is located in the Education Block building on the main UCalgary campus and is operated by the clinical psychology program. It provides a wide range of psychological services to the Calgary community including assessment and psychotherapy services to children, adolescents, and adults struggling with a range of issues, including emotional disturbances (e.g., depression, anxiety), effects of trauma, relational problems, life transitions, stress management, insomnia, difficulties with behavioural change, and identity issues.

“We are quite pleased with how successfully we have made this transition, and in such short order,” says Dr. Joshua Madsen, PhD, clinic director and supervisor. “It’s a real testament to the strength of our team — including students, supervisors, departmental leadership, and IT partners — and its clear commitment to our clients and community.

We recognized the clinic was a resource that simply cannot stop providing support to the community during a time of significant need.

Madsen says of the current community needs the clinic is addressing, “We are understandably seeing more stress, anxiety, and practical problems because of the COVID-19 crisis. For example, we use different approaches to help people deal with things like feelings of isolation, depression from losing work or other productive activity, or the anxiety and fear we are all feeling from the presence of the virus in our communities.”

Pivoting from a physical environment, where therapy is provided in a traditional in-person format to one in which therapy is given in an online format is not without its challenges, however. Madsen and other clinical supervisors were mindful that some clients and trainees may have felt uncomfortable with confidentiality and privacy concerns when sensitive personal information was being shared via technology. And further, that in some cases delivering therapy through an online medium may not be appropriate for those with specific problems and associated needs.

‘Little impact’ in move to telehealth

Dr. Lianne Tomfohr, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychology

Lianne Tomfohr says safety and confidentiality are taken seriously.

As Dr. Lianne Tomfohr, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and co-supervisor for adult psychotherapy at the clinic, observes, “As with any form of therapy, the clinicians need to be very mindful and aware of the information the client is sharing, particularly when done online.

“We also take safety seriously and prior to every session we ask people to provide us with their physical location and a quick description of their surroundings, and we have a protocol in place where if we think someone is in physical danger we can contact 911 and send emergency medical services to their location.”

Tomfohr says of initial concerns about how supervising trainees and providing services online might function, “I thought the transition to telehealth might be more difficult than it has been – even clients seeking treatment for phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder have made the switch with little impact on their treatment plans. The trainees also get to meet online together and debrief once a week, which I know is good for everyone’s mental health.”

Given the promising response thus far from clients, students, and supervisors, Madsen believes telehealth will continue as an integral clinic service once normal operations resume, to reach a broader audience and provide more options for members of the public to access services.

Madsen also emphasizes that the fact the clinic remains open now is consistent with what the donors had initially hoped envisioned for the clinic. “Being able to provide services for clients, for free, during a challenging time is consistent with the donors’ vision. We aim to be a service to our community by targeting pressing needs, and providing highly accessible services. It also allows us to continue to provide our students with some consistency in their clinical training, which helps alleviate stress that COVID-19 may derail their academic trajectories.”

More information about the University of Calgary Psychology Clinic, and details about how to register for services, can be found at their website.