Hundreds of thousands of mental health assessments and appointments should be carried out remotely, as the Royal College of Psychiatrists continues to ramp up its efforts to protect members, patients and NHS staff from the coronavirus outbreak.
In new guidance, the College urges psychiatrists to carry out all assessments and follow-up interviews using video conferencing tools such as Skype, WhatsApp, Facetime and Attend Anywhere.
The telephone should be used if patients lack digital literacy or have no access to digital platforms, to ensure no-one is disadvantaged by the move away from face-to-face appointments.
The call comes despite England lagging behind other countries in using remote consultations - including Wales - where a successful pilot in Gwent for young people who self-harm, or have an eating disorder, is being rolled out by child and adolescent mental health services.
Professor Wendy Burn, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Unprecedented times call for unprecedented action, which is why we are advising psychiatrists to remotely assess and support their patients.
“We must do all that we can to support the NHS and to ensure patients with mental illness still receive the medical care and support they need during this difficult time.
“Our guidance is being updated regularly, ensuring our members and all healthcare professionals working across the mental health estate have the best information to help them do their jobs.”
The guidance - published by the College with input from NHS England and the Royal College of Nursing - covers 20 areas, including using digital technology, support for clinicians working in community and inpatient settings, and engaging with patients.
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 the College recommended remote consultations be used as a supplement to face-to-face assessment, but given the current climate it is encouraging psychiatrists, where possible, to use audio or video platforms.
Most recent NHS Digital data shows in December 2019, 1.37million people were in contact with mental health services, and nearly 300,000 new referrals were made to secondary mental health services.
The Connecting with Telehealth to Children in Hospital (CWTCH) pilot in Gwent, Wales, supported by The Health Foundation, offered young people who self-harm, or who live with an eating disorder, the option of remote assessment through a virtual online clinic, in the company of family members.