Telepsychiatry, i.e., the use of information and communication technologies to provide psychiatric services from a distance, has been around for more than half a century now. Research over this period has shown that videoconferencing-based telepsychiatry is an enabling and empowering form of service delivery, which promotes equality of access, and high levels of satisfaction among patients. The range of services offered by videoconferencing-based telepsychiatry, potential users and points of delivery of such services are theoretically limitless. Telepsychiatry has both clinical utility and non-clinical uses such as administrative, learning and research applications. A large body of accumulated evidence indicates that videoconferencing-based telepsychiatric assessments are reliable, and clinical outcomes of telepsychiatric interventions are comparable to conventional treatment among diverse patient populations, ages and diagnostic groups, and on a wide range of measures. However, on many aspects of effectiveness, the evidence base is still relatively limited and often compromised by methodological problems. The lack of cost-effectiveness data in particular, is a major hindrance, raising doubts about the continued viability of telepsychiatric services. Added to this are the vagaries of technology, negative views among clinicians, poor uptake by providers, and several legal, ethical and administrative barriers. These hamper the widespread implementation of telepsychiatry and its integration with routine care. Though further advances in technology and research are expected to solve many of these problems, the way forward would be to promote telepsychiatry as an adjunct to conventional care, and to develop hybrid models, which incorporate both traditional and telepsychiatric forms of mental health-care.
Is telepsychiatry an idea whose time has come? There is no doubt videoconferencing-based telepsychiatry facilitates effective service-provision in a large number of areas, where access to high-quality services is difficult. Consequently, it promotes an equality of access, a sense of empowerment among patients, and high levels of satisfaction among them. The evidence to date is highly suggestive that it is comparable to face-to-face care on several aspects of what is traditionally considered effectiveness. However, by the present stringent standards, the quality of the evidence is, perhaps, not adequate. Additionally, there are several barriers to telepsychiatry’s wider implementation such as cost-effectiveness, uncertain ethical and legal implications, and concerns about sustainability of programmes. These continue to thwart its integration into the routine network of mental health services. Accordingly, at present telepsychiatric services can only serve as an adjunct to the more traditional modes of service-delivery, but can never replace them. Therefore, the way forward would be to develop hybrid models, which incorporate both forms of service-delivery[84,172]. If telepsychiatry settles into this niche, it has the potential to enhance the overall efficiency of mental health services by removing the many obstacles, which afflict conventional systems of service-delivery. This model may also work for low- and middle-income countries, provided that effective, needs-based forms of telepsychiatric services are developed in these countries as well.