Online Counselling- Area of Concern

June 19, 2020

Background

Online counselling refers to the use of information and communications technology by counsellors to render professional guidance, counselling and/or therapy to their clients, in written, audio or video forms, through internet platforms and social media.

Some Views on Online Counselling

It is understandable and acceptable for counsellors to provide online counselling services to their clients, with an understanding that online counselling is intended for rendering prompt services to clients in crisis, or under circumstances in which face-to-face interviews are not advisable or feasible, such as during the recent social unrest and COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.

Primarily, no matter which mode of counselling service being used, the counsellor should duly observe the basic requirements as stated in the existing Code of Ethics put forth by The Hong Kong Professional Counselling Association, and get regular supervision.

Before starting to provide online counselling service to the client, the counsellor should take into consideration and address the following issues:

  1. Is online counselling the only and best way to serve the client?
  2. Is the client willing to give informed consent in acknowledging the limitation and potential risk of online counselling service, including those being mentioned below?
  3. Has the counsellor adopted reasonable and appropriate measures in dealing with the limitation and potential risk ?

At the beginning of an online counselling session, the counsellor should brief the client clearly about the limitation and potential risk, as well as disclaimer on related liability.  And, the counsellor had better got informed consent from the client.

The counsellor should also reassure the client that the process could be stopped whenever the client feels inappropriate.

Limitations of Online Counselling

Online counselling could be a useful way for counsellors to give useful information and consultation to their clients, as well as to help them deal with less complicated psychological problems. 

Online counselling may or may not be appropriate for some clients in some situation, such as new intakes and those at unstable emotional or mental state. In such cases, the counsellor should advise the client to go for face-to-face counselling.

The counsellor might not be able to make accurate assessment through non-verbal communication, such as direct and full observation on the body language of the client, there will be limitation for the counsellor to provide in-depth intervention in helping the client deal with more complicated emotional or mental health problems. 

The counsellor might also encounter difficulties in engaging and helping the client in an electronic media and disembodied process in which the counsellor could not have full control. 

Potential Risk

The counsellor should take all precautions to ensure and maintain confidentiality in the course of online counselling.  The information disclosed by the client to the counsellor should be kept confidential, unless there are ethical or legal concerns such as suicidal attempt, domestic violence and committing crime. 

The privacy of personal information of the client should also be ensured in accordance with the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance in Hong Kong.  Unless prior consent from the counterpart has been sought, no photo capturing or audio/video recording could be taken by both the counsellor and the client throughout the entire online counselling process.

Technical problems and even system failure could occur unexpectedly at any time during the online counselling process, thus causing disruption or misunderstanding in communication.  The dialogue between the counsellor and the client might possibly be accessed, interrupted or misplaced by unauthorized persons.

The counsellor should ensure the access to stable internet connection as well as normal functioning of the communication device being used. The counsellor should also have got a contingency plan in case the afore-said situation happens.

This aligns with section 2.8 Technology Applications listed on page 16, Code of Ethics, HKPCA in our same webpage

Prepared by

Membership and Professional Standards Committee

HKPCA