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Defining the Role of a Digital Navigator in Mental Health

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Digital health navigators are often placed into behavioral health settings without clear objectives.

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As digital mental health care expands, an increasing number of patients need help navigating the apps and other platforms used for delivering the care. That is where the idea of a ‘digital navigator’ comes into play.

A recent study from Harvard Medical School by Sara Perret, MS published in Lancet Digital Health aims to dissect and categorize which staff members should become digital navigators, what responsibilities they will have, and the ways they are clinically beneficial.

Perret and her team conducted the research by sifting through thousands of previous studies on digital navigators before deciding to use 48 in their own analysis.

Digital navigators are described in the study as ‘members of health-care teams who are dedicated to supporting patient use of digital resources’, but a more comprehensive definition is lacking.

Digital navigators are popular because they are an attempt to address vacancies in the behavioral health care field, of which there are 4 million. However, insufficient technology skills of patients, patient focus, and workflow issues all prevent this from happening.

To address these issues, researchers found that hiring unlicensed individuals was the most beneficial, saving those with licenses for higher-level, therapeutic roles due to physician demand.

In terms of materials, research shows that navigators benefit from having a manual to work from. The team has issued a free, online guide expanded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration-funded Serious Mental Illness Adviser support system.

Overall, researchers found navigators were helpful and helped reduce depression and anxiety in patients.

“As digital mental health tools gain popularity, patients require support using and engaging with new technologies, and clinics need help integrating these tools,” the authors write. “Expanding the adoption of current definitions or defining new consensus definitions presents a target for next steps for the field.”

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