An article about our company, Talkspace, was recently published in
the New York Times that we want to address because it misconstrues
our work and makes false and uninformed assertions about
patient privacy and certain marketing practices.
Let us preface this by saying we are open to scrutiny. Over the past nine years we have invested all of our passion into Talkspace, which we see as a labor of love that was created after we both benefited from therapy in our personal and professional lives. We have constantly learned and evolved,
have taken feedback from our patients and clinicians about how to be better, expand services, improve access, and we have learned from mistakes.
Some of our decisions have ruffled feathers, especially among those who benefit from the status quo in mental healthcare, and that’s ok. It tells us we are doing something right. As long as we are making high quality mental healthcare more accessible and affordable, while maintaining our high standards and quality, we are achieving our goals. We created something new that welcomes everyone and finally democratizes this profession, and since the pandemic started in March hundreds of thousands of people in need have turned to Talkspace and our team of dedicated therapists for help and that’s what we care deeply about. Over two million people have used Talkspace services: 80% of our patients are women, and over 60% of patients are attending therapy for the first time.
Because of our fierce belief in these achievements, we cooperated with Kashmir Hill, the New York Times reporter who reached out to us in July with an entirely negative set of assertions. Her questions showed very minimal understanding of how we work or about our field. Ms. Hill is not a health care reporter, and according to her bio, she writes about the “ominous ways technology is changing our lives.” Many of her questions revolved around the experience our therapists have had working with us and also client privacy. We were happy to discuss both, and three clinicians and a Talkspace executive spent hours in interviews, especially discussing the issue of privacy because we take it so seriously. We can only destigmatize mental healthcare and increase access if people have faith in the care and advice they receive and where they receive it.
Over several weeks, Talkspace provided a fact based conversation, naively thinking this was a real discussion. Much of the information we provided never made it into her piece. We even learned that Ms. Hill also interviewed Dr. Irvin Yalom, one of the world’s most prominent clinicians, who is supportive of online therapy and of Talkspace. But his perspective didn’t make it into the story. Talkspace flatly declined to comment on any current or past corporate clients, citing confidentiality, but the reporter used unverified information, probably provided by former-employees violating confidentiality agreements, to knowingly try to harm Talkspace’s commercial relationships.
The story, like so many recent takedown pieces, relies heavily on former employees as “anonymous” sources. Their anonymity makes it impossible to evaluate their biases or conflicts of interest. However, the former employee who is featured in the story on the record shared information that is from 2016 and is not accurate. He is a good man and we appreciated his service to Talkspace. We are glad he connected with a therapist on Talkspace that he still sees today, as he notes in the piece. He has a side to his story and there is another side, which the Times chose not to equally report on — and there are key pieces they did not fact check.
For example, the referenced text-reading demo that we guess is supposed to show we are careless was delivered using a fully de-identified script, a point that we made thoroughly in all interviews and in our written replies to the Times. Even the gender was changed. It was written and read with the individual’s explicit permission and his identity was not shared with anyone, though at the time he himself shared it with many others, as was made clear in interviews. The article provides no evidence to the contrary, only suspicions presented as facts. That said, even the story notes that the employee stayed on for another two years, until we had to let him go because he didn’t follow his manager’s directives and he didn’t show up for work. He wasn’t happy about losing his job and we are sorry it didn’t work out.
Further, the so-called “burner phone” the New York Times pictures as its “gotcha moment” isn’t a burner phone at all. It’s a “Quality Assurance phone” (QA) commonly used by tech departments, including ours, to check our platform for things like fonts, speed of loading, sizing on different phones and different platforms like Android and IOS etc. In fact, the codes in the picture match a missing company phone. Had the paper asked us about this phone, we would have been able to clarify the matter. While it is true we used to ask our employees to review Talkspace (we ended this practice in 2018) since therapy services were offered to employees, we never faked any app reviews. We have over ten thousand reviews (positive and also negative) and we would have had to purchase thousands of “burner” phones year after year to influence such a large number of reviews, which is absurd.
The article’s reference to a therapist soliciting a client was revealed through an internal review of encrypted and de-identified text designed to search for keywords/phrases like “call my home, here’s my cell number, meet me in person, let’s FaceTime, let’s Skype“ etc, as we have had a few therapists attempt to solicit Talkspace clients to their own practice with a promise of lower fees for direct pay to the therapist on platforms that were not HIPAA approved. We do not feel such action by a therapist is ethical, contractually correct conduct or safe for our clients. Talkspace is a HIPAA/HITECH and SOC2 approved platform, audited annually by external vendors, and has deployed additional technologies to keep its data safe, exceeding all existing regulatory requirements. Talkspace analyzes encrypted and de-identified data to look at text so as to both warn therapists of potentially risk-related language usage by a client, and to identify any inappropriate behavior, which has allowed Talkspace to operate for nearly a decade without a malpractice claim in our network. To be clear; only the company’s Chief Medical Officer and Chief Technology Officer hold the “keys” to access original transcripts, and they both need to agree to do so. This has happened just a handful of times in the company’s history, typically only when a client points to particular language when reporting a therapist issue that cannot be resolved without seeing the original text. In these rare cases, Talkspace gathers affirmative consent from the client to view that original text: both facts which were made clear to the Times in spoken and written interviews. Only Safe-Harbor de-identified transcripts (A “safe harbor” version of a transcript removes any specific identifiers of the individual and of the individual’s relatives, household members, employers and geographical identifiers etc.) are ever used for research or quality control. And, of course, if one of our therapists feels that a particular client needs face to face therapy or a higher level of care — through their own practice or with someone else; they need only inform our clinical leadership who will review the case and cooperate with the therapist to help transition the client.
Finally, absent a substantive discussion, the Times and the reporter attempted to target Roni Frank by insinuating she misrepresented her clinical studies. In fact, Roni has been consistently up-front about two things: first that, as a leader of Talkpace, she makes all relevant decisions in partnership with or in deference to clinical experts. Second, she has also been clear that she did not complete her studies for a Masters’ Degree, but instead left to start Talkspace. Her LinkedIn profile had the years she studied and she has now tried to clear up any confusion. Here are two examples going back to 2015 where her founder’s story and education are clearly articulated.
What we’re most proud of about Talkspace is the team and culture we built; a group of committed, compassionate individuals with big hearts that are doing great work to help people in need. These mission-oriented and empowered employees were not represented in this piece, despite three clinicians discussing their own positive experiences. In fact, one former employee who was aggressively solicited to validate criticisms declined to participate in the story and told us of the outreach, stating, “I refused both instances on the grounds that it felt like personal vendettas rather than anything I experienced during my tenure.”
Talkspace is a digital home office platform for over 3,000 therapists, psychiatrists and nurse practitioners — many of whom have been working with us for years. Talkspace’s therapist retention rate is 99% per month. We readily admit that the Talkspace platform is not a good fit for every provider. We’re a technology and data healthcare company that strongly believes in measurement and the use of data as a way to achieve better clinical outcomes. Providers that dislike or are intimidated by technology, and don’t want to use any kind of clinical outcome measurement are probably better off not working on the Talkspace platform. We are also not always the right platform for every individual seeking therapy. We are a new, accessible option in a field where for its entire history, there was only one option — in person care.
We are at a moment in time when Talkspace’s dedicated network and team are working to provide support for millions of people who are dealing with heightened anxiety, financial instability, loneliness and uncertainty. Our mission is more important than ever before, and we continue to believe that mental healthcare is a right for all, not a privilege for the few. We are confident in our methods and vision, in our incredible Talkspace team and the thousands of professional providers that work on our platform, offering our clients the potential of a better life. We are committed to continue working hard towards “Therapy For All.”
Thank you for your kind attention,
Roni and Oren Frank, Talkspace Co-Founders
We welcome the opportunity to continue this dialogue. Please reach out to us with any questions, concerns, feedback (or support) at (firstname.lastname@example.org).
For full transparency, we’re happy to share the correspondence between Talkspace and the reporter and section editor.
To explore affordable and accessible therapy and psychiatry, please go to www.talkspace.com