Online health treatment plans essentially refer to a set of recommendations and proposed steps in patient care a psychologist, therapist, or other mental health professionals will take to administer treatment for their patients.
When a person presents themselves to a therapist’s office for the first time, they will go through what is called an “initial assessment.” This can take on multiple forms, such as a questionnaire that takes them through a few questions about their mental health, as well as a sit-in with the therapist. Based on the assessment, therapists or a mental health expert will then think of a relevant path to take the patient on, form the methods that would be most appropriate for them, even prescribe potential medication.
Today treatment plans often take an online, digital form. Therapists now have an array of e-therapy apps, billing software, and teletherapy programs at their disposal to help them optimize virtually every process in their practice, including treatment plans.
But how do online treatment plans work, and what software is most effective in helping therapists and patients alike?
Understanding the Role of Treatment Plans
The APA describes treatment plans as :
The recommended steps of intervention that the therapist or counselor devises after an assessment of the client has been completed.
Treatment plans aren’t exclusive to the mental health sectors. Doctors, nurses, social workers, or other health care providers may also use them. They contain essential information (though less detailed) about the patient’s condition and a detailed rundown of the interventions required to make them better.
The National Cancer Institute provides a similar explanation, albeit in more words :
A detailed plan with information about a patient’s disease, the goal of treatment, the treatment options for the disease and possible side effects, and the expected length of treatment. A treatment plan may also include information about how much the treatment is likely to cost and about regular follow-up care after treatment ends.
Warren A. Turner and Linda M. Merriman have also identified 5 key components of a comprehensive treatment plan:
- Identifying the issue that requires intervention;
- Outlining the aims and outcomes of the recommended treatment;
- Describing the patient’s participation in treatment (the specific measure they have to take, such as using a mental health app in their free time);
- Describing the therapist’s or health professional’s role in the treatment (such as how many sessions are required);
- Establishing a method of reviewing the outcomes of the treatment.
At its most basic, a treatment plan offers therapists a better overview of patient care. Of course, these plans aren’t necessarily set in stone.
Mental health professionals can modify them based on their interactions with the patient, allowing for flexibility, greater client engagement, and personalized, high-quality mental health services. But for the most part, treatment plans are designed to help ensure proper care and treatment.
Essentially, the core goal of digitalized treatment plans is to help therapists analyze and measure the outcomes of the methods they employ with their patients. In doing so, they are designed to help practitioners see if they are indeed making progress, or if they need more help managing/overcoming their mental health issues.
SMART vs. Human-Centered Treatment Plans
Though SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) were introduced back in the 80s in the business sector, they were also adopted by doctors and therapists as well. But how might they facilitate better care?
SMART Goals in Treatment Plans
The appeal of SMART goals is that they seem attainable. Once a patient is assessed, the mental health provider can use this formula to create specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely goals. However, there are a lot of critics of this formula when applied to a mental health setting, as many feel it pushes forward without also addressing the underlying reasons for why a patient may be seeking therapy or mental health services in the first place. 
Additionally, such treatment plans don’t account for situations where the treatment course of the patient cannot be easily predicted based on the initial assessment but has to be modified and updated as the patient continues to seek therapy and grow.
SMART goals can still be useful with specific types of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), but their application in the overall mental health sector can lead to practical problems in treatment.
Human-Centered Treatment Plans
Another proposed model for treatment plans is the human-centered treatment plan which shares control over treatment planning with the patients themselves. 
Based on this model, patients have the opportunity to establish personal goals for their own treatment, which are then added to the treatment plan. The therapist will also add their own goals based on their evaluations of the patient.
Together, these goals can ultimately offer better care for the patient, as they are first encouraged to self-identify any issues they want to work on (a therapeutic method in itself) and imagine how they can resolve it. Treatment is no longer simply “forward-thinking” but accounts for more components of the mental health issue the patient faces.
What a Treatment Plan Looks Like
Some treatment plans will contain a lot of patient information, such as:
- Personal data
- Previous medications, and
- Other details relevant to telemedicine practitioners.
Whether you choose to include these in your treatment plan as a practitioner or therapist will ultimately depends on how your patient files are structured. For instance, if you’re using patient management software that already carries all this information, there’s really no need to repeat it in the treatment planning.
This is a treatment plan for depression examples, which focuses on 5 main components that need to be addressed: problem identification, goals, objectives, interventions, and progress.
Problem or Symptoms
Symptoms of depression include unexplained sadness, increased sleep, and self-esteem issues. Using an example patient (Alan), we can see how a treatment plan might look for someone who has been having difficulty communicating and interacting with his family, and has lost interest in hobbies.
In this plan, we see:
- A Goal (there can be multiple goals, depending on the case at hand) – Reducing symptoms of depression significantly. This will be measured by the PHQ-9 score (or other methods of measuring). 
- Objectives (smaller goals that lead to reaching the larger one above) – For example, Alan will learn coping skills, such as emotional regulation. This will be measured by showing these skills during the sessions, as well as home assignments for two consecutive sessions. Second, he will share his feelings with his family and engage with them. Third, his family will participate in one session with Alan. This will be measured by communicating during the session. Finally, Alan will identify three areas of interest for him, and become more engaged in them.
From here, a treatment plan based around SMART might outline specific interventions; for example:
- Individual therapy helping Alan address learn more about himself, his condition, and coping mechanism
- Family therapy to help Alan reconnect with his loved ones, and/or
- Medication management
Finally, progress is measured and evaluated. Over the course of 10 sessions, our fictional Alan was able to achieve two of the three objectives. He learned important coping skills which he then applied to real-life situations successfully. Additionally, he identified three areas of interest to him and took important steps in engaging with them.
Alan reported, however, that he is not ready yet to bring his family into the recommended family sessions. This allows his therapist to suggest that further sessions are needed to address his reluctance to involve his family in his treatment.
As we can see, Alan’s treatment plan can have additional goals as needed. Moreover, his therapist can also provide more details about the session, as well as integrate personal notes from their face-to-face or video therapy sessions.
What Are Online Treatment Plans?
Today most of the tools a therapist or psychologist needs have a digital version, either one that can completely replace the traditional one, or a version that can complement it.
One example is an online therapy tool that can be used as an addition to traditional therapy. The patient will come into the session as planned, but a part of their treatment could integrate using an app at home. For instance, a patient can be asked to use a mood diary – a form of experience sampling – where they track their feelings while outside the office. Apps can make this task rather simple, and then the patient can discuss what they’ve tracked with their therapist.
Treatment Plans in Virtual Care
But it’s not just tools designed to be integrated into therapy. Digital treatment plans have also found a home in the digital world as part of virtual and blended care practice.
Here, they can take on different forms. They can be programs or websites simply designed to serve as a digital treatment plan, allowing the therapist to cover the basics of it a lot faster.
Digital treatment plans have found a home in the digital world as part of virtual and blended care practice.
Alternatively, they can be integrated into a larger patient-management software that includes other features connected to running a practice. For instance:
- Scheduling features
- Billing functions
- Appointment canceling
- Medication management
- Chat/messaging features
- Patient records such as electronic health records (EHR), and/or
- Digital notes, etc.
Online or digital treatment planners often come with pre-designed templates; for example, a provider may offer one specialized treatment plan for depression, and another distinct but customizable template for an eating disorder treatment plan.
Additionally, these templates can have predefined statements a therapist can choose based on whether it applies to their patient. As well as being time-saving, they are designed to allow editing to increase accuracy.
When paired with an overall patient management tool such as a digital behavioral health system or electronic medical records (EMR), essential data like patient information, health history, or medication don’t have to be manually inserted. Therapists can thus conveniently create ‘folders’ for the patients that contain all this information, and easily access it when needed.
What Online Treatment Plan Should You Use?
Just as therapists might have their own methods for designing manual treatment plans, their online and digital versions come in different shapes and sizes as well.
An obvious criterion here is to look for those designed for the mental health sector, as these often offer lots of formats and templates that can facilitate a therapist’s work. Other than that, it’s important to take into account what you need from a treatment planning software, and see if it matches.
Here are great examples to possibly consider:
|ICANotes offers all the functionality of an integrated practice management suite. This includes 32 templates for different mental health issues, 43 nursing problems, and 18 social problems. ICANotes allows you to automatically select long-term and short-term goals for each, as well as write down intervention methods.|
With EHR and EMR functions, practitioners access features designed for more efficient daily office tasks, and it’s developed by a clinical psychiatrist specifically for those in mental health fields such as teletherapy.
ICANotes is an EHR designed for behavioral health services.
|Good For||Telehealth, e-Prescribing, Practice Management, Billing|
|CareLogic is a web-based EHR that caters to mental health and human services. Its treatment plans can help streamline this task be easily documenting problems, goals, objectives, interventions, and activities of every patient.|
With this service, some manual work is reduced. For instance, the needs of the patient identified during the assessment are automatically updated on the treatment plan as well, saving the therapist a lot of valuable time.
|Good For||EHR, e-Prescribing, Scheduling, Note Taking, Practice Management|
|PIMSY is a cloud-based EHR designed exclusively for mental health services. Just like the other services on this list, it has a variety of features that can help with running a practice at virtually every level, from billing to appointment scheduling. Regarding treatment plans, it comes with plenty of templates that can be customized based on the needs of the patient, or based on what the therapist wished to focus on.|
Additionally, it also uses some interfaces from the Wiley Treatment Plan Library, which offers a very wide array of templates that can be integrated within the program.
|Good For||Treatment Plans, Note Taking, Client Management, Billing, Practice Management|
A major concern regarding anything that contains private patient information has to do with security. In other words, are these online solutions safe?
Many of these services do put in a lot of effort into ensuring the security of the data stored on them. One common trait here is encryption, which prevents third parties from accessing patient information unless they are specifically given access.
Security is definitely an important criterion to consider when shopping for a treatment plan software. And indeed, it seems these digital solutions do offer therapists the chance to cut down the time it takes to write treatment plans, as well as notes, other forms, or even overall patient files.
Regarding if these online treatment plans can improve patient care, we don’t really have any evidence to definitively say they do. However, the fact that therapists can free up at least some of their time might mean that effort can go into patient care.
- ^ APA. (2020). APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/treatment-plan
- ^ National Cancer Institute. (2020). NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/treatment-plan
- ^ Turner, W., & Merriman, L. M. (2005). Clinical Skills in Treating the Foot. NY: Elsevier Health Sciences.
- ^ Frank, R. I., & Davidson, J. (2014). The transdiagnostic road map to case formulation and treatment planning: Practical guidance for clinical decision making. California: New Harbinger Publications.
- ^ Murray, R. (2002). The phenomenon of psychotherapeutic change: Second-order change in one's experience of self. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 32(2-3), 167.
- ^ Kroenke, K., Spitzer, R. L., & Williams, J. B. (2001). The PHQ‐9: validity of a brief depression severity measure. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 16(9), 606.