The (near) future of therapy is not online

As creative disruption teaches us, innovations start small. The original concept satisfies a small use case, seemingly innocent to cast doubt over the established modus operandi, but offers distinct advantages to a few niche users.

Online commerce was like that in 2000. 

Online therapy was like that in 2010. 

And then online commerce started growing steadily. Initially it was an add on, a nice to have but eventually it has brought the high street to its knees. 

Remember, there were really good arguments for retail to begin with: “no one buys something they can’t try. No one trusts paying online. Do you know the product is genuine? Can I risk giving a stranger my credit card? On the shop, I can try the item, look at it and feel it, get advice, purchase safely and use it on the go.”

It’s not that long ago that using a credit card online was considered risqué.

And here lies the question: Is the same thing going to happen to therapy? Is online therapy, accelerated by the advent of Covid-19 going to replace the way practitioners help people? 

It is not a dissimilar conundrum. 

Traditional therapy has similar characteristics: it relies on real estate (therapy room) to be delivered, claims that for the relationship to flourish physical presence and a holistic sensory input are required and is bound by a strict and centralised code of ethics which dictates even the logistics of it (e.g. payment). 

Online therapy, indeed, still feels like the lesser good for a lot of people and therapists alike. But it is more cost efficient (or can be). It is more immediate. It’s more convenient. For few, it has been a life saver. 

So, It seems fair to draw a parallel and ask: 

Is therapy going to experience its own existential crisis?

But here’s an inherent difference: Therapy is about feelings & thoughts. Those are very often around about relationships with others. I bet > 90% of people in therapy talk about their relationship with others often.

And during Covid, which media seems to be touting as a general disruptor and propeller of online therapy, there are two categories of people locked in: Singles and non-singles.

And whilst, to my regret, I don’t have data to prove this nuanced detail here’s my assumption: For those that are forced to stay indoors with their loved ones, online therapy is not feasible.

Why? Because for all intents and purposes, the people they want to talk about are the ones they’re locked in with and they don’t feel they can maintain the necessary privacy. As a result, a new appreciation for a physical, safe space emerges. And that safe space might require a set of walls and a far-from-home location. 

And that is a fundamentally an opposing wave to “online is accessible”. 

More likely scenario is that therapy will adjust with the fitness industry. Working from home kits, courses that can be booked online have been available but the need for a dedicated space, sharing a workout with others is very much in trend. Really, it’s a different experience. 

So, prediction? If and when we go back to “normal”, online therapy’s popularity will certainly not be anywhere near traditional, in person therapy. It will keep on growing inevitably but the true revolution is yet to come. 

The true revolution will require a few things that are currently not available. 

  1. A full investment from both parties (no notifications and distractions) 
  2. A sense safety and privacy 
  3. And a sense of physically be present in a shared space.

VR covers a lot of the above but leaves one exposed to their surroundings so it requires a safe communication method which for now hints at Neuralink’s way. I hope this post ages well but… gut feel? None of that is coming soon. 

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