Future is promising: Technology for use by mental health professionals 'exploding'

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

May/June 1997

During the past month I have presented papers at two conventions, one dealing directly with technology in mental health and the other being a statewide psychology convention. At both a promising picture emerged about the coming world of technology with no end of surprises that are still hard to imagine. Here's a summary of what was said.

The Coming Technology

The Behavioral Informatics Tomorrow (BIT) conference in Tampa, FL. proved that technology has exploded during the past year. More technology is available to both individual and small group practitioners as well as to mental health clinics.

While the last two BIT conferences featured mostly theoretical technology (not yet ready for use), this year's was real. Vendors and speakers demonstrated products that performed in-house administrative tasks such as billing and scheduling, plus many managed care functions including certifications, authorizations, treatment plans, medication evaluation forms, treatment summary forms, outcome assessment, and more.

Also, it was clear that therapists are now jumping on board or being asked to do so because more insurance carriers and managed care companies are asking for electronic connectivity. More and more companies are asking their providers to communicate with them about many of the functions listed above via their modems. Since I know from my research that less than one in four therapists has access to electronic mail, this means that more will need to upgrade their systems to pursue these new requirements.

In support of this, two major managed care companies recently mailed letters to providers that either directly asked them to use their in-house computerized management system or consider using such a system in the very near future. The not-so-subtle sub-text was that if the provider wanted to continue getting referrals it would be best to adopt the technology.

In private talks with people involved in mental health technology, it was clear that practitioners who deal with insurance and managed care companies will slowly lose business if they fail to become involved with technology.

There was also much discussion at this year's BIT conference about using the Internet and Word Wide Web. Some were talking about its value as a storehouse of information while others were touting its usefulness in electronic commerce and communication. Both presenters and discussants were readying themselves for the net's role in the future.

At the California Psychological Association's convention, I saw a similarly hopeful picture. For the past 10 years Dr. Michelle Weil and I have given talks to small audiences of 20 or so psychologists at this convention which rose to 60 or 70 last year. This year, the talks and a roundtable discussion attracted several hundred with topics covering office management systems, computerized assessments, hardware, online psychotherapy, building web sites and more. Sessions on "Sex and the Internet" and "Online Psychotherapy and Other Technology Tools for Mental Health" were held before overflow audiences, attesting to interest in technology and the role it plays in therapists' practice lives.

At an online psychotherapy talk, we asked for a show of hands of how many people currently have a web site. Only two answered affirmatively. But when we asked how many expected to have a web site within 2-5 years, two-thirds of the 60 attending raised their hands. Their reasons varied from facetious remarks ("so my mother can see what I do for a living") to the realistic belief that they simply felt they needed a web site, but did not know why.

So, here we sit, poised at the top of Alvin Toffler's Third Wave (the information age), finally ready to merge psychology and technology. We're waiting, with lots of questions and very few answers. Stay tuned to this column for more of those answers.


Not-So-Funny Things that Happen on the Internet


Subject: EMERGENCY -- security breached by NaughtyRobot"


It was the beginning of a message, possibly perpetrated by an adolescent computer-whiz. But it upset hundreds, perhaps thousands of people all across the country one recent Sunday.

The missive read, in part: "This message was send to you by NaughtyRobot, an Internet spider that crawls into your server through a tiny hole in the World Wide Web. NaughtyRobot exploits a security bug in HTTP and has visited your host system to collect personal, private, and sensitive information."

The jokester suggested that the user's private computer world was under siege and on the verge of collapse -- jeopardizing e-mail, telephone and credit card numbers. Adding sarcasm, he/she advised that the person alert their server's SysOp (system operator) and their local police, have the telephone disconnected, and report all credit cards lost.

The episode turned out to be a hoax. Investigation exposed that I was the victim of what is called "e-mail spoofing." The Internet Service Provider in San Diego said that their name had been forged in the message which did not start there or even travel through their system. Since they had received hundreds of calls about the NaughtyRobot, it confirmed that no one had been singled out for invasion of privacy.

Copyright, 1997, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $30 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.