In 2012, Marion Mattison published an article in a noted social work journal that explains the opportunities, as well as the challenges, of communication with clients through e-mail within a clinical context. Clearly, as e-mail has become a well-established means of digital communication over the past two decades, it has raised questions about the ethics, legality, and other practical considerations with in a clinical context. This article will briefly explore some of the challenges and opportunities using digital communications with clients.
As Mattison notes, the risks of using e-mail with clients include: “threats to client confidentiality and privacy, liability coverage for practitioners, licensing jurisdiction, and the lack of competency standards for delivering e-mail interventions.” In other words, a number of serious complications must be considered by the practitioner before he or she engages in any digital communication with a client.
Although Mattison is speaking specifically about social work, her ideas about therapist-client digital communication can be applied to different fields such as clinical therapy. One major dimension of using e-mail in this way remains that, according to Mattison, professional guidelines ought to be established. The author notes that an ever-increasing number of clinical professionals—in this case, social workers—have used digital communication with clients. She cites the use of e-mail in particular as “an emerging practice methodology.”
Although some noted risks of using e-mail as a means of practitioner-client communication have been noted above, there also remains opportunities, too. Some benefits as noted by Mattison are: “the potential to reach clients in geographically remote and underserved communities, enhancing and extending the therapeutic relationships and improving treatment outcomes.” If clinical practitioners establish “boundaries of competence” and develop professional guidelines, then using email and perhaps even other means of digital communications may be beneficial for both the client and the clinical practitioner.
Another opportunity that Mattison points out remains the “immediacy with which communications can be sent and received.” In other words, the sheer speed of which communications travel nowadays using digital means can, arguably, become beneficial in crisis situations. What is more, Mattison writes that the use of digital communication with clients may also reduce the latter’s feelings of social isolation and depression.
Although communicating with clients in the clinical context digitally may pose risks for both the practitioner and the client, it may also pose opportunities. The risks, as noted from the outset, include various legal, social, and clinical challenges. That said, however, because of the ubiquity of digital communication such as using e-mail, it may become difficult to avoid using it to communicate with clients. That’s why, as pointed out by Mattison, clinical practitioners may need to develop a set of professional guidelines about how to communicate with clients. So, the question becomes not “Whether professionals ought to use e-mail to communicate with clients?” but “What are the best ways to use digital communications—e-mail in particular—to communicate with clients?”
Mattison, M. (2012). Social Work Practice in the Digital Age: Therapeutic E-Mail as a Direct Practice Methodology.” National Association of Social Workers, 249 – 258.
Guidelines for the Practice of Telepsychology