Teletherapy’s post-pandemic staying power

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Oct 1, 2020

Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic and one thing is certain: we are not going back to “normal” any time soon. As people across the country experience disruptions in their routines, elongated periods of isolation, loneliness, and fear of job loss, mental health status continues to be an overarching concern. Luckily, teletherapy services are stepping up to help address the ongoing mental health crisis that defines the new normal.  

Like telehealth, teletherapy allows patients to virtually connect to a licensed health professional. Also like telehealth, teletherapy has seen a drastic boon since COVID-19 changed daily life in the country. First-time downloads of the top rated mental health and wellness apps were up 29% between January and April—a notable feat considering there was a 30% decrease in downloads during the same period last year. 

However, there is a question as to whether this rise will last, or if it will flounder once COVID-19 runs its course. Teletherapy faces some challenges that typical telehealth does not, which could impact its staying power. Jobs Theory explains why. 

Jobs Theory

Jobs Theory is a framework for understanding the circumstances that drive behavior. It reveals that people rarely make decisions around what the “average” person may do in a given situation, but instead, often do things because they find themselves with a problem they would like to solve (we call this their “Job to Be Done”). Even in the same situation, two people may have different “jobs” for which they “hire” various solutions, based on their personal preferences and life circumstances. 

Each job consists of functional, social, and emotional facets, and for any given job, one of these components can outweigh the others. For instance, why would someone go through a months-long process to obtain an exceedingly expensive Birkin bag, only to buy generic trash bags? Using Jobs Theory, we can surmise that for this person, when it comes to the Birkin, the social facets of their Job to Be Done outweigh the others, but when it comes to purchasing trash bags, function prevails. It also explains why someone might choose to buy poorly made handmade soap from a friend’s small business; while it’s not the best quality functionally, they feel good supporting a friend. 

Does teletherapy get the job done?

With regards to telemedicine, it’s clear thousands are turning to it, or “hiring” it, because they believe it can solve their unique Jobs to Be Done. Functionally, there’s no doubt—with offices closed as a safety measure, teletherapy enables patients to speak to a professional about their mental health from the convenience of home. Even better, texting and phone conversations enable patients to reach out the moment they feel they need help, rather than relegating their time to an appointment.  

For those more trepidatious about starting therapy, teletherapy may also address important emotional facets of their Jobs to Be Done. It may be easier to talk through a screen from the comfort of home than it is talking face to face. It all depends on the user’s definition of comfort.

Depending on people’s unique circumstances and priorities, these benefits may be  more than enough for some to not only hire teletherapy now, but in the future. For others, the emotional aspects of their Jobs to Be Done may push them to hire other  solutions once the pandemic subsides.

One element that likely factors into whether someone hires therapy is the feeling of safety and comfort that comes with an office or platform. Some might find that communicating through a screen provides a feeling of security, addressing an emotional component of their Job to Be Done. However, others—particularly those who are forced to live at home due to COVID-19, or with roommates—may not feel secure using any form of teletherapy due to an inherent lack of privacy. Many people use therapy to talk about aspects of their lives they haven’t revealed to friends or family members. While appointments remain strictly between therapist and patient, the safety blanket of confidentiality disappears when a family member can walk in at any time.

Therapists may also find that teletherapy doesn’t quite nail their Jobs to Be Done. Virtual platforms make it hard (or impossible) to detect non-verbal cues as to a patient’s mental health. Not only could this provide a functional challenge when it comes to providing therapy, but an emotional one. Therapists may feel that they cannot help their patients to the best of their ability, leaving a sense of professional dissatisfaction.

Teletherapy is undoubtedly serving an important role with COVID-19 impacting mental health at an unprecedented rate. Teletherapy allows people who need to either start or continue therapy to do so, while also staying safe in the midst of a global pandemic. However, its long-term success is questionable. Companies running virtual mental health platforms should consider the many factors behind why people hire therapy. Today teletherapy may be an invaluable service, but its ability to properly address the unique jobs of patients long into the future remains to be seen.

Jessica is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on business model innovation in healthcare, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care delivery.