The role of technology in mental health is unmistakable. It is transforming the face of the medical profession, increasing reach, and changing the way medical practitioners and patients view mental health. Digital therapeutics for mental health -- a subset of digital health -- involves evidence-based, software-led therapeutic interventions to prevent, manage, or treat a mental health condition. Technology is an enabler for therapy, augmenting the role of human support, which is why building empathetic technology is a key focus area today.
The role of technology in mental health: Five key areas
While technology and social media are largely blamed for the gaps appearing in the social fabric over the years, here are a few notable examples about the positive role technology has played in mental health:
Optimizing available clinical resources
Globally, healthcare systems experience an acute shortage of specialist doctors; which means a large percentage of people may never receive mental health treatment. This is a grave concern given the increasing incidences of mental illness worldwide. Technology can play a big role here in reducing the wait-time between primary care and specialists. Recommendation engines can be built to guide primary health care providers to offer the first line of care. Once a specialist is available, three-way digital communication between the primary care provider, the specialist and the patient can help create individualized treatment plans with closer monitoring and better care delivery.
Expanding the reach of online care
Extending online counseling services for mental illness to unserved/underserved segments such as conflict areas, schools and colleges, and groups where mental illness has a severe stigma attached to it is a critical need. A managed care model can be created by leveraging technology for medical experts, technology providers, payers, educational institutions, and other stakeholders to work collaboratively and alleviate challenges.
Chatbots for mental health
Chatbots are the new virtual counsellors. Take for instance, “Woebot”, that works as a companion and helps subscribers manage their mental health. Likewise, “Ellie”, a robot therapist helps veterans deal with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder by analyzing voice, facial expressions and non-verbal communication cues.
Augmenting the role of medical coordinators or health coaches
Empathy towards patients in understanding the jobs to be done for an individual holds utmost importance in unleashing patient potential to manage a mental health condition. It is important to build a network of health coaches or medical coordinators who act as wellness advisors to patients either through digital channels like conversational interfaces, video messaging or telehealth platforms. A medical coordinator can serve as a supportive agent to seek first-level support for people who have chronic conditions and require behavioral or lifestyle changes.
Providing a smartphone-based app to patients to access therapy and track their own progress is a great way of promoting self-care. That’s because tracking the patient’s lifestyle and behavior in a non-intrusive manner is as important as medication in many health conditions. Take for instance the case of substance abuse, where prescription digital therapeutics for mental health, as adjuncts to clinical consultation, are already showing encouraging results for substance dependent patients. Peer-to-peer platforms are also emerging as self-care methods.
Taking a holistic human-tech approach to mental wellbeing
While technology offers many tools and models to foster physical and mental wellbeing, the future of therapy will depend on identifying the right combination of technology coupled with empathy through human support. It is the only way to scale therapy and offer personalized support for those with mental illnesses. Systems of intelligence should fuse sensor data with data from systems of engagement and records to build a holistic view of an individual to deliver therapy. For instance, data from electronic health records can be fused with public health data to discover interesting disease patterns and also develop personalized treatment options.
This will enable democratization of health data giving rise to an app economy for healthcare, which will expand the reach and quality of care. Similarly, new therapeutic interventions are emerging. US FDA recently gave approval to prescribe video games as therapy to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ADHD in kids. For the first time US doctors can prescribe video games as therapy. Clearly, blending technology with empathy is a novel way forward towards managing and initiating treatment in the area of mental health.