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Catholic Charities counselors move to online telehealth platforms

MIAMI | Catholic Charities’ team of five counselors stopped seeing mental health clients in person March 23, 2020. After a week of transitioning to working from home, they are now adapting to online platforms to stay connected to their clients, said Claudia Gomez-Cardona, head of behavioral health services for Miami’s Catholic Charities. 

Counselors generally have a caseload of anywhere between 15 to 22 active clients, each of whom receive between eight to 12 sessions on average. Counseling fees are based on a sliding scale. An American Red Cross grant from 2017, which was awarded to Catholic Charities following Hurricane Irma and extended through the end of April, allowed fees to be waived during the pandemic.

Word of mouth, parish referrals, and referrals from other agencies usually create a waiting list for services.

In response to the pandemic, the federal government loosened some of its HIPAA standards governing telephone and video-based mental health counseling. That has allowed the Catholic Charities staff to stay on top of their casework using whatever means of communication the clients are able to manage, such as Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, GoToMeeting or just a simple phone call.

Still, Catholic Charities prefers to move clients to more secure platforms designed for telehealth, according to Gomez-Cardona. 

“We made the switch to telemedicine in the second week of March when the social distancing was becoming more and more prevalent and clients and counselors were asking for that,” she said. “It was a slow transition because some were older clients and this does require the client to have smart phones, and others were not feeling comfortable with the online process.”

Client confidentiality is of paramount importance, so Catholic Charities counselors train each of their clients on how to use the technology and how best to ensure privacy on both ends of the line. Professional counseling standards also must be maintained. As with in-person meetings, telehealth appointments must be scheduled in advance. 

“Because clients are discussing very confidential information you don’t want someone to worry that anyone is listening or that the information will be copied or shared. We are educating the community more about it and let people know we are doing everything we can to protect confidentiality,” Gomez-Cardona said.

Catholic Charities’ staff provide individual, marital, family, child and adolescent counseling. Services are available to all regardless of their religious or non-religious affiliation, gender, race, age or sexual orientation.

Some clients request a simple phone conversation, which is treated as a supportive form of communication between counselor and client but is less intense than a therapy session enhanced by face to face interaction. Clients generally need a smartphone, laptop or desktop computer with video capability for telehealth. 

“We are encouraging them to join the telehealth (platform) because you can see the person and that eye contact is important,” Gomez-Cardona said. 

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