Online Psychotherapy - Safeguarding The Therapist, The Client And The Profession During The Covid-19 Pandemic

By  Declan Peelo

Therapist and client videoconferencing

Face to face psychotherapy came to an abrupt halt, with the announcement of Government restrictions, intended to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Confidentiality & Security 

Confidentiality, an ethical imperative in psychotherapy, could be compromised in online working, in ways not normally associated with face to face therapy, i.e., potential risks from the client’s own remote environment; unauthorised access by third parties to the digital platform, deliberate or accidental, during an online session (DPC, 2020; IACP, 2019b; APA, 2013; Rousmaniere, Abbass, & Frederickson, 2014). The presence of unknown third parties in the client’s environment, intentional or otherwise, requires an additional check on behalf of the therapist not associated with a traditional face to face (Duncan, Velasquez, & Nelson, 2014). It is important to fully inform participants about potential additional limits to confidentiality, and additional client consent should be obtained if client protected health information is transmitted over any online application, including e-mail (DPC, 2020). These additional risks, reinforce the ethical principle of practicing within one’s area of competence (Duncan et al., 2014). In a study of 93 therapists practicing online, Finn & Barak (2010), expressed surprise that one-third of participants continued practicing when confidentiality was known to be in doubt. Practitioners must be proactive, in guarding against breaches that risk the therapeutic relationship, which in turn could severely damage the integrity of the profession.

It is recognised that absolute security in the digital world does not exist, and so necessitates careful decision making towards taking reasonable steps to ensure adequate levels of security for the type of service being provided. One of the consequences of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR; DPC, 2018; IACP, 2020) was to restrict the use of  hosting platforms to those which comply with security and encryption requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996. The onus of responsibility is firmly on the therapist to ensure the chosen platform complies with current regulations (IACP, 2019a; BACP, 2019; Dear, 2015; Gamble, Boyle & Morris, 2015; Rousmaniere et al., 2014; and Duncan et al., 2014). And most importantly, practitioners are advised to consult with their insurer, as it is likely to be a requirement for any online work to be conducted via a secure platform. In most instances, if it is a social media platform, it is unlikely to meet the standard for security or confidentiality (Anthony, K., 2020). Training courses in Working Online raise awareness of the unsuitability of social media sites as a medium for delivering therapy online, which aligns with the views of both the governing bodies (BACP, 2019; IACP, 2019b) and the insurance industry (PPT, 2020). 


Practitioner Competence and Training

Practitioners are guided to undertake specific training to develop the technological competencies necessary to provide reliable and adequate services to clients, as recommended by their respective associations (BACP, 2019; IACP, 2019b). In response to requests for essential information for practitioners transferring to the online environment as a consequence of COVID-19, a number of introductory online training courses are available, free of charge or donation based ( and ). These programmes  focus on the key essentials for safe practice and the information most needed by practitioners to work online for a short period (Anthony,2020; O’Carroll,2020). These include having alternative ways of providing services if the primary method of communication fails; keeping up to date concerning new developments in the technology being used in order to provide the safest and most reliable service to clients. A full training programme would include upwards of 80 CPD learning hours as a minimum requirement for full preparation for converting to work online. This is in addition to the practitioner already being a qualified, practicing counsellor, which gives an indication of the complexities and challenges working online presents (Anthony, 2020; O’Carroll, 2020) According to BACP, it is considered good practice to receive at least some supervision online through similar technology. And it is also important for practitioners to ensure the right type of insurance is in place for the service being provided (BACP, 2019).


Contracting & Client Suitability

In an online offering, the practitioner must be cognisant of any legal or ethical limitations and provide clients with explicit and relevant detail of any limitations in advance (IACP, 2019b). Prospective online clients need to have additional information and contractual issues to be presented in advance, such as, the additional risks and limitations to confidentiality (Corey, 2013; IACP, 2019b). Practitioners must continuously be aware of and consider the legal, regulatory, and risk-management issues associated with practicing online therapy, including licensure, malpractice, credentialing, cultural, security and privacy, safety plans and emergency management (Gamble, et. al., 2015;Duncan, et al., 2014), all of which are covered in the introductory courses of Anthony, (2020) and the O’Carroll, (2020).

Another important discussion to be held at the outset and subsequent sessions, concerns the client’s remote environment. Practitioners are encouraged to assess the suitability of the client’s location to ensure it is comfortable and conducive for effective delivery of the online therapy (APA, 2013; Gamble et al., 2015). It is reported that certain mental health issues, including self-harm, psychosis, trauma or severe personality disorders, may prove intractable to online therapy (Anthony, Jung, Rosenauer, Nagel & Goss (2010); APA, 2013; Gamble et al., 2015; BACP, 2009). Additionally, clients who present with ongoing problems of addiction or alcoholism, or those who seem reluctant to comply with the contractual requirements of online therapy may be encouraged to access alternative mediums of support (IACP, 2019b).  It is also suggested that some initial in-person contact for initial assessment to facilitate an active discussion on issues such as; clients appropriateness for online therapy; the remote environment; crisis management; and back-up communication strategies in case of network failure (APA, 2013). Faced with such legal and ethical considerations and challenges, it is understandable that both representative bodies, the BACP and the IACP, place such emphasis on the requirements for additional trainings for those intending to work online (BACP, 2019; IACP, 2019a).

The same skills that enable psychotherapists be flexible and adaptable in an ever changing clinical environment, can serve the profession well in the new technological frontier (Rousmanniere,, 2014). This view echoes that of Rogers (1995), in which he states technological advances are not to be dismissed, but as psychotherapists, being open to change is fundamental for personal growth. Although technology will advance, it is imperative that client needs drive the treatment modality (Duncan, et al., 2014). Yalom offers a caution in relation to online therapies and technological advances saying, “if successful, it would be a pleasant and rare instance of technology increasing rather than decreasing human engagement” (Yalom & Leszcz, 2005, p.524), but that was before we encountered COVID-19.  Therefore, in an environment of restrictions, online therapy may serve as an adequate conduit for maintenance of the therapeutic relationship when alternatives are limited.



The challenge that COVID-19 have presented are continuing to unfold on a daily basis. As the caring profession in other areas are heroically meeting these challenges, therapists too, are capable of adapting and honing their skills, and learning new skills, in order to deliver effective therapeutic services for the communities they serve. With additional training, good council with supervisors and peers, the COVID-19 pandemic may prove to be the catalyst for positive change in the delivery of therapeutic services for communities. Developing these capacities could serve benefits to many in the future, as the trend towards ‘convenience’ therapy (for whatever reason) could meet unmet needs of those who may not otherwise have sought such services in the past.


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  • American Psychological Association (APA). Available at:
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  • Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP). Available at:
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  • Online Therapy Institute:
  • The Therapy Academy:

About the Author

Declan Peel