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  • Mental Health

Three Ways Tech Can Help Mental Health


Increasingly, healthcare organizations are relying on information technology (IT) solutions to increase the reach-and efficacy-of healthcare. Here’s how technology can help mental health, too.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), millions of Americans are affected by mental health conditions each year-approximately one in five will experience a mental health issue in any given year. With such staggering numbers, it can be a challenge for many healthcare organizations to help individuals manage chronic disease conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. There may be a lack of qualified providers in certain geographical areas-or lack of complete medical data concerning an individual patient’s history. But many healthcare organizations are hoping that emerging technologies can help reduce hospitalizations, improve day-to-day care, and lower mental health-related costs. 

“The prevalence of mental health conditions, which so often are co-morbid with chronic disease, means there is a growing demand for services,” says Deborah Estrin, PhD, a computer scientist at Cornell University and a founder of Open mHealth, a non-profit organization with the mission of using mobile health data to help promote the diagnosis and treatment of chronic health conditions. “Many mental health conditions can be managed by skilled clinicians with a relatively small amount of data. But we need more tools that can efficiently get that data to those clinicians. This is a need that technology can help meet.”

Here are three ways tech can help promote mental healthcare:

  • Connecting people. You’ve heard the phrase, “There’s an app for that!” With nearly every American tied to their smart phone these days, Estrin says there is ample opportunity for patients to connect with therapists and other mental healthcare providers using basic telehealth applications. Patients can connect with therapists no matter where they happen to reside-and get in touch with those providers when they most needed. Today, you can find a variety of mental health applications in your preferred app store to help connect you to mental health providers or even other individuals with similar diagnoses. Furthermore, emerging technologies like virtual reality (VR) are also offering patients options for care that are more accessible and convenient.
  • Connecting data. Beyond telehealth applications, Estrin also argues that mobile phones and devices can offer clinicians a way to passively pick up data to check in on patients-and not rely on them to check in when there may be a crisis. With the right applications in place, clinicians may be able to stop an issue before it manifests into a mental health crisis or need for hospitalization.

“There is an opportunity to provide individuals and their care providers with a personalized and nuanced understanding of the individual’s status,” says Estrin. “These data patterns could help inform treatment, lifestyle choices, and interventions.”
Steve Daviss, MD, a psychiatrist and president of Fuse Health Strategies, says that IT can also help get clinicians data they need to effectively treat patients who appear for in-person appointments.

“So often, data is in siloes. The patient is right in front of you and you can’t see important information about them. The more siloed the data is, the further removed it is from the healthcare provider and the more likely they could make a mistake,” he says. “IT solutions, like emerging cloud solutions, can help get mental health providers the information they need-so you don’t have an emergency room doctor giving patients medication or other care that may be contraindicated.”

Estrin cautions that there are important issues of privacy and security when it comes to patient data-but healthcare, as an industry, should work together to overcome them.

“There should be a way to do this in a way that does not overstep the basics of human boundaries, intimacy, and liberty,” she says.

  3.  Connecting future treatments. The passive data picked up by your smart phone can also help further ongoing research projects. Many laboratories across the globe are using big data and analytics programs to help better understand the progression of mental health conditions-and even consistently track whether a given treatment may be working as expected. 

“These data patterns could help inform treatment, lifestyle choices, and interventions if we have a reliable way to collect them,” says Estrin. 

Estrin says there are many “curve-bending” technologies already in existence that could help reduce the burden of mental healthcare for both patients and healthcare organizations alike-but what is lacking is the right framework to implement them in an effective manner.

“We don’t seem to have a health or innovation system that brings these different technologies to individuals or healthcare organizations effectively,” she says. “We’re way behind when it comes to what could be done. But, hopefully, that will change in the future.”


Kayt Sukel is a science and health writer based outside Houston, Texas.

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