Our previous research shows that increasing communication between counselors and consumers can improve consumers’ experience with the VR system as well as their rehabilitation outcomes (1). Using telecommunication (electronic communication) methods, like email, text, instant messaging, and video conferencing, can make it easier to communicate more frequently.
To learn more, see our previous research:
- Premature Exit from VR Services
- VR Agencies’ Use of Telecommunications to Deliver Services
- Factors associated with consumer engagement and satisfaction with the Vocational Rehabilitation program.
However, not all communication channels are equal.
Here, we suggest some considerations for counselors, providers, and consumers to take into account as they think about which types of telecommunication strategies might work best for them.
Even if you are not familiar with all of the new communication methods that are available, you probably use email to communicate with others as part of your normal workday. You may also use a cell phone to text coworkers.
If managed correctly, email and text can be great counseling tools. They allow for asynchronous communication, when there is a time lag between sending and receiving a response.
Counselor benefits for using asynchronous communication methods include:
- Eliminates phone tag—can reduce the amount of time spent trying to reach consumers by eliminating back and forth messages.
- Flexibility –allows counselors and consumers to address issues as they arise.
- Reduces travel time and cost—can reduce the need to travel to rural locations. However, not all rural locations have consistent internet and cell coverage, so this may not be a possibility for all consumers.
When done effectively, telecommunication can offer several benefits for the consumer, including:
- Extended Reach – Electronic communication can reach individuals who experience barriers in traveling to services, because of distance or due to transportation, accessibility, or disability issues (3–7).
- Increased Services – Email and the internet can increase consumer choice about providers and improve access to a broader range of services (6,8)
- Consumer Self-Management – Counseling via telecommunication methods allows the consumer more autonomy in the counseling process. Regular appointments are not required, consumers can set their own pace, and they can access services outside of traditional counseling hours (4,6).
- Access to Online Resources and Services – There are many resources available to consumers online, such as informational websites, support groups, and online classes.
- Accommodates Different Needs – Telecommunications allows people to process information at their own pace (avoiding “overload”) and in an environment that minimizes external sensory inputs (9).
Unfortunately, there are drawbacks to asynchronous communication. These include limitations in the technology available to consumers, such as not having access to consistent internet or cell coverage, or not having access to accessible electronic communication devices, such as a tablet computer modified for low-vision users, or adaptive joystick-based interfaces for users with grip impairments.
Though consumers have varying levels of access to the internet and cell service, access is increasing all the time. As of 2018, there are many efforts aiming to improve rural broadband access across the country (2). Also, as technology evolves, different types of electronic communication devices become more and more affordable and accessible.
Another main concern is confidentiality. Your agency most likely has security measures in place to protect email communication, and should also have a policy with telecommunication best practices.
However, the consumer may not be familiar with internet security or confidentiality best practices. If you or the consumer feel uncomfortable sharing information via different telecommunication methods, it may be best to avoid those methods.
See the Telecom Toolbox Ethics page for more information on the ethics of using telecommunication methods.
To learn more about previous RTC:Rural research on VR social media policy analysis, see “6 Essential Elements of Social Media Policy for VR Agencies.”
You can learn more about creating an effective email relationship with a consumer in structuring an email relationship.
Is telecommunication always the best?
Keep in mind that just because you can doesn’t always mean you should. Not all consumers are equally prepared to use different types of electronic communication. If you do wish to communicate via email or another electronic communication method, consider the consumer’s disability, skill set, and what resources they have available to them (such as internet/cell access and adaptive technology).
Use your best judgement. If a certain communication channel doesn’t work, find another way to communicate.