Technology in mental health: what works and what doesn't?  - MedCity News

As mental health becomes more prominent in people’s daily lives, digital care in the space is becoming a booming industry. It’s evident in the money: the mental health tech sector raised a record $5.5 billion in 2021, a recent CBInsights report shown

But while some areas of digital mental health are working, other areas need improvement. The topic was discussed Wednesday at a panel at MedCity’s Invest in digital health conference.

What works

Between two people who have depression, one may have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, while another may be angry and have outbursts.

“These people have the same diagnosis and receive the same standard treatment, but why do we think these two people should receive the same kind of treatment?” said Jennifer Gentile, senior vice president of innovation at Ieso.

Instead, what works is personalizing treatment plans. Even if two people have the same diagnosis, they may have different care needs. This is where evidence-based interventions, or programs that have been proven to work, come into play.

“I see [evidence-based interventions] in training psychiatrists, psychologists,” Gentile said. “When it’s observed, when things seem to be going well, it absolutely can work.”

Examples of evidence-based interventions include cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves changing thought patterns, and dialectical behavior therapy, which helps people understand difficult feelings and learn to control them. As for technology, there are several applications that use these approaches, such as Wysa and DBT Journal Card and Skills Coach.

Another area gaining momentum in mental health is direct-to-consumer solutions, said Crystal Barrett O’Loughlin, founder and CEO of Angel Aid, a nonprofit mental health support organization for people living with rare diseases. These solutions allow people to get mental health support themselves and this has gained popularity in recent years due to Covid-19.

“There are so many different solutions for people to pick up the phone and literally just start working with their own mental health needs and end that isolation, end that medical uncertainty, end that kind of disruption in the home and working life,” Oh, Laughlin said. “People are looking less and less outside of themselves and finding their own solutions.”

What doesn’t work

While some solutions are proving to work for those struggling with mental health, there are still issues when it comes to access for patients, Gentile said. About 20 percent of people with mental illness actually access care, and about 50 percent of those who do get care actually get better, she cited.

Also, much data and literature is outdated, she said.

“Our data set is built on predominantly white male students,” Gentile asserts. “Much of our literature … has not changed in decades in terms of the extent of its results.”

Another area that is proving challenging in mental health is providing services in a cost-effective way, said Deepak Gopalakrishna, founder and CEO of Oxford VR. While some forms of treatment such as cognitive-behavioral therapy are effective, it’s challenging to do at scale, he said.

“There are things that work, so DBT and CBT work and the data is there,” he said. “The problem is that shipping is actually expensive. It costs people a lot of time. So can you scale it? You can’t because you have to throw more people into it. In fact, you have to cast well-trained people.

Not only is it expensive to deliver effective mental health care through technology, but it can be difficult to get clinicians to adopt new solutions, Gopalakrishna added. Learning new technologies can take a long time. In addition, a recent paper on AI in mental health showed that some clinicians are concerned about being replaced by AI.

“Getting clinicians to do something new … is like pulling teeth,” Gopalakrishna said. “It’s just borderline impossible.”

In fact, adopting technology can improve workflow for clinicians who spend much of their time on administrative tasks, he said. It can also offer them useful training. Like golf, providing mental health care takes practice, something virtual reality can provide, Gopalakrishna said.

“The reality is that unless you really practice and build that muscle memory, it’s going to be really hard to execute and build the kind of memories that are required. And that is what virtual reality offers,” said Gopalakrishna.

Photo: SIphotography, Getty Images

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