Harnessing Technology to Revolutionize Behavioral and Mental Health Care

Sept. 1, 2017
There is currently tremendous innovation happening in the behavioral and mental health care space with many digital health startups and initiatives using technology to try to address one of society’s most pressing issues.

There is currently tremendous innovation happening in the behavioral and mental health care space with many digital health startups and initiatives using technology to try to address one of society’s most pressing issues.

For healthcare providers and those in the mental health industry, there is a critical need for innovation, given the ongoing challenges of bringing behavioral and mental health into the care continuum. According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one in five Americans have a diagnosable mental disorder, or roughly 43 million people. And, nearly 10 million Americans have serious functional impairment due to a mental illness, such as a psychotic or serious mood or anxiety disorder. What’s more, NIMH also estimates that serious mental illness costs America $193 billion in lost earnings per year.

The opportunity for technological innovation in this space has spurred clinicians, researchers, developers and mental health innovators to test ideas to improve mental health, whether through the development of mobile apps or platforms to better coordinate care. There has been a burst of app development, with now thousands of mental health apps now available. One only need look at the latest funding rounds to see that it’s a big area of interest for investment groups. Mental health startup Lantern has raised $21.4 million in Series A funding, Quartet has raised $47 million so far in Series B funding and Talkspace, another mental health startup, has raised $28 million in Series B funding.

And startups are addressing mental health and behavioral health issues from different angles. Lantern provides personalized programs combining quick daily exercises with professional coaching with the aim of improving emotional wellbeing. A New York-based company, AbleTo, provides technology-enabled behavioral health by connecting people to licensed therapists and coaches via its network of providers. AbleTo has raised $36.6 million in series D funding this year. New York City-based Quartet developed a technology platform to make it easier for primary care physicians, patients and behavioral providers to coordinate care.

Recognizing the need to better address mental healthcare, many hospitals and health systems are leveraging digital technology, either through their own home-grown initiatives or through partnerships with technology companies, to better integrate mental and physical healthcare. Just this month, Sutter Health, a healthcare system in Northern California, announced a collaboration with Quartet to pilot the company’s technology in the Roseville, California area in an effort to better integrate mental healthcare throughout the health system, specifically into Sutter’s primary care network, the health system said.

Back in May, Healthcare Informatics’ Contributing Editor David Raths interviewed Quartet founders Arun Gupta and Steve Shulman about their venture into behavioral health as Quartet was one of Healthcare Informatics’ Up-and-Comers for 2017. In that article, Gupta said, “I think we are clearly out in front on a huge issue in society that is driving a ton of healthcare cost. It is a hard problem.”

In fact, even Google has rolled out a mental illness screening tool via its search engine, recognizing that its search engine continues to be one of the ways people seek to learn about their health. Google worked with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to increase access to a tool that allows people to screen themselves for clinical depression. When people now search for “clinical depression” on Google on mobile devices, a knowledge panel appears that gives people the option to tap “check if you’re clinically depressed,” which brings them to a PHQ-9, a clinically validated screening questionnaire and self-assessment that can help determine a person’s level of depression and the need for an in-person evaluation, according to Mary Giliberti, National Alliance on Mental Illness CEO, writing in a blog post about the initiative.

While one in five Americans experience an episode of depression in their lifetime, only about 50 percent of people who suffer from depression actually receive treatment, Giliberti wrote. “We believe that awareness of depression can help empower and educate you, enabling quicker access to treatment. And while this tool can help, it’s important to note that PHQ-9 is not meant to act as a singular tool for diagnosis. We hope that by making this information available on Google, more people will become aware of depression and seek treatment to recover and improve their quality of life,” Giliberti wrote.

Technology is opening up a new frontier in mental health support and data collection. There are research projects underway to use smartphones as an invisible research tool to passively track and collect data on a smartphone users’ activities and behavior as way to gauge their moods and mental state. Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital Department of Psychiatry and in the Department of Biostatistics and Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health worked on a project to develop a platform to collect research-quality smartphone raw sensor and usage pattern data to study psychiatric and neurological disorders, according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

“The data generated by increasingly sophisticated smartphone sensors and phone use patterns appear ideal for capturing various social and behavioral dimensions of psychiatric and neurological diseases,” the researchers wrote in the study. For instance, even passive data, such as how many steps a person takes in a day, call and text logs and screen event data, can point to a users’ mental state.

There are both pros and cons to using digital and mobile technology in mental health care. The advantages of digital technology include convenience, anonymity and lower cost to patients. As NIMH notes, the new era of mental health technology also raises a number of concerns, such as the effectiveness of mental health apps and digital platforms, privacy issues and regulation of mental health technology and data. And while those concerns should be addressed, with 43 million people in the U.S. dealing with a mental disorder, the time is ripe for healthcare providers, researchers and developers to continue to test new, big ideas to improve mental health. The capabilities of technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence in healthcare can also provide promising insights into mental and behavioral health.

As many healthcare provider organizations are now moving forward into population health, mental health is going to be key to population health management programs, and the time is now for healthcare and healthcare IT leaders to push ahead and leverage digital innovation to better address mental health care.

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