JOURNAL ARTICLE

Trauma-Informed Telehealth in the COVID-19 Era and Beyond

Megan R Gerber, Sadie Elisseou, Zachary S Sager, Jessica A Keith
Federal Practitioner 2020, 37 (7): 302-308
32908333

Background: The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) entered the COVID-19 pandemic crisis with an existing and robust telehealth program, but it still faces a fundamental paradigm shift as most routine outpatient in-person care was converted to telehealth visits. Veterans are a highly trauma-exposed population, and VHA has long offered effective telemental health services. Natural disasters and pandemics like COVID-19 are known to be traumatic. Those with preexisting trauma exposure and mental health conditions are often at greater risk than the general population for long-term adverse health sequelae. Application of trauma-informed principles to telehealth care is critical and timely.

Observations: Trauma-focused care (including telemental health) refers to evidence-based treatment models that directly facilitate recovery from trauma-related conditions like posttraumatic stress disorder. Despite the widespread availability of trauma-focused treatment in VHA, not all veterans chose to engage in it. In contrast, trauma-informed care (TIC) is a global, "universal precautions" approach to providing strengths-based, collaborative quality medical care in any discipline or location. In this article the authors, all primary care and mental health clinicians at VHA, advocate for the application of the 6 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration principles of trauma-informed care to telehealth. Using examples from telehealth research conducted in trauma-exposed patient populations, we illustrate the characteristics of telehealth that are well suited to delivery of trauma-informed care and suggest readily applicable strategies that can be used across disciplines including primary care and medical/surgical specialties. A primary care patient case scenario is included to illustrate how telehealth visits can be trauma-informed.

Conclusions: Telehealth expansion has occurred nationally out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trauma-informed virtual care has the potential to ensure and even expand continuity of medical care by fostering safe and collaborative interactions between patients and the health care team.

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