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Making it easier for patients with addictions to access counsellors

By Jerry Zeidenberg

TORONTO – A number of private-sector companies have emerged that enable patients to connect online with medical doctors via video or text. They’re responding to patient-driven demand for these kinds of services – if you’re sick, but it’s hard to get to the doctor’s office, why not interact with him or her via computer?

Now, a Toronto-based company called Hasu Behavioural Health has expanded the clinical scope of online visits. It’s specializing in mental health and addictions counselling – including drugs, alcohol, problem gambling and sex addiction.

By signing on to the secure Hasu eCounselling website, clients suffering with addictions and related challenges can interact online with certified addiction therapists, social workers and psychologists through video, talk or text counselling.

The majority of sessions have been with patients and family members who are struggling with substance abuse and drug addictions, including dependence on opiates like fentanyl and heroin.

Hasu – Japanese for lotus flower, which produces beautiful blooms above the murky water – was launched in 2015 by Greg Rennie, an addiction therapist and his wife and co-founder Stefani Farkas.

“I had been working for large healthcare facilities, in the area of addictions, and realized there were serious gaps,” said Rennie. “People were waiting months for addiction treatment. I felt badly for clients and their families.”

Rennie was aware of online mental health services in the United States and thought something similar could be developed in Canada.

During the research and development stage, he met a company that had devised a secure, consumer-ready platform for telehealth. “It was a great match for us, because we knew the clinical side, and they were experts in the technology,” said Rennie.

Soon after, Rennie and the team were able to start recruiting a network of therapists across Canada. They now have 30 clinicians on-board across the country, and as of July, they had conducted 200 online therapy sessions.

“It’s appealing to therapists and we’re getting applications from across the country,” said Rennie.

He noted that by going online, therapists can work evenings and weekends, or fill out empty slots in their schedules during the daytime.

The therapists are carefully vetted, however, before being brought on-board.

The cost of the service for clients is $75 per hour. “That’s about half the cost of a face-to-face session with a therapist,” asserted Rennie. He noted that in urban centres, some therapists charge as much as $200 per hour.

For many patients, insurance plans cover the costs. Others are quite happy to pay the fee, as the online sessions help them cope with day-to-day living and are an important part of the recovery from addictions and other problems.

Online counselling can often be the ideal solution, especially when it allows patients to see a therapist faster than waiting for an in-person visit. And it offers the client the ability to talk with a professional at times that are convenient, from home or office.

“For some people, especially in rural areas, it’s very difficult to get to a clinician’s office,” said Farkas. “In those locations, you don’t always want to be seen going into a therapist’s office.”

Online systems give clients much more privacy, she noted. They’re also ideal for patients who have trouble leaving their homes, due to a physical ailment, frailty or a phobia.

Interestingly, most of the clients to date have preferred interacting with therapists via text, rather than video. “People seem to be more comfortable with text therapy,” said Rennie.

There is a practical advantage to texting, too: “They can keep the texts and look at them later,” he noted. “With face-to-face therapy, you may remember part of the session, but a lot is forgotten.”

For therapists, there are special techniques used with texting during a clinical session. “Unlike voice, there is no inflexion or tone,” commented Rennie. “So you have to use words carefully, and ask clients to clarify what they have written.”

Of late, Hasu has been reaching out to addiction treatment centres to provide online programs. The brick-and-mortar centres often don’t have online resources to support patients at discharge, and Hasu is offering to help out.

In some instances, clients who complete a program at an addictions facility return to their communities in another province, but can’t easily go back to the centre for follow-up sessions or continuing therapy. That’s where online sessions can be a great help. “We can provide an online continuing care program for these clients,” said Rennie.

For more information, visit hasuecounselling.ca

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