Mental health illnesses are on the rise, and despite their impact on society, our existing mental health care system isn’t equipped to support patients and their families. Many patients find that there are not enough care providers, especially outside of major cities. Even when they find care, they run into other obstacles, such as waiting lists that stretch on for months or providers that don’t take insurance. There is a growing trend where people are turning to digital healthcare, and the internet of things (IoT) and other connected health technology are proving to be a way to bridge that gap in care.
Healthcare innovations need not be extreme like deep brain stimulation or robotic surgery: even in its simplest form, it can still have a transformative effect. With regard to mental health care, this can manifest as online therapy. Conventional therapy is inaccessible to many people for a variety of reasons, whether it be because they work during typical practice hours or live in a rural area lacking in providers. Telehealth programs can serve as a link to more advanced care, which can range from setting up weekly sessions with a therapist or calling for a neurology consultation after a stroke. Security had been a major challenge for telehealth providers in recent years, though HIPAA-compliant programs are beginning to come into the market.
Biometric sensors can even be incorporated to improve patient care by collecting medical and lifestyle data. Psychiatrists can then use the data to monitor drug side effects, or therapists can provide remote biofeedback sessions. Because these are difficult-to-access services, especially at a reasonable price, technology ultimately has the power to democratize access to this kind of care. Biometrics represents a much more advanced level of care, but even digital therapy platforms can be impactful for short-term care. These applications tend to be less comprehensive than traditional mental health treatment but are valuable to patients who are undecided in whether they want to pursue in-person therapy and for those who are searching for a therapist.
Even though there are major improvements overall in mental health care, there is still the stigma associated with seeking care, especially among men and minority communities. A few startups are testing a new model where patients can tell their problems and concerns to a computer, thus making the process more comfortable. Essentially these startups allow users to examine their mood and thought patterns and then guide them through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skills. There is potential for the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in these programs, though the technology is not yet capable of handling a complex conversation quite yet. Apps that provide skills-based strategies for managing anxiety and depression can still help people who would otherwise avoid all mental health care, which in itself is a step towards progress.
Digital mental health care is still a new field, but the tools emerging from it are helping to reach patients for whom care had been inaccessible. The growth of digital medicine now has a profound impact on mental health care, too, and is helping to change social norms.