Digital Technologies Transforming Mental Healthcare in 2021

From evaluating to symptom tracking, from education to virtual care, technology is reshaping the mental healthcare landscape. As our world becomes increasingly digitized, technology developed specifically to manage and treat mental health disorders will become increasingly common.
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By Varvara Bogdanova
Business Development and Content Manager, Healthcare & Life Sciences
Digital Technologies Transforming Mental Healthcare in 2021

Over the last decade, the discussion of mental health and well-being has found itself at the centerfold of public consideration. The once-taboo topic has proliferated into the mainstream view, as communities have come to acknowledge both the prevalence and the severity of conditions such as depression, anxiety, and addiction. Now, perhaps more than ever before, we are finally working to ensure mental health conditions are treated in the same manner as any other serious health condition. Mental health, we have come to realize, cannot exist at the periphery of the healthcare system; instead, it should be placed at the heart of it.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new set of challenges in the arena of mental health as sweeping lockdown measures and public health orders brought life as we knew it to a grinding halt. The associated social and economic impacts emerged at an alarming rate, with communities experiencing a notable influx in pandemic-related stress, anxiety, fear, depression, and isolation. This was a widely shared experience as many individuals who had not formerly struggled with mental health began to suffer from mild to severe conditions in the aftermath of altered daily routines, fear and stress, and mounting financial pressure. 

To this effect, a review published in The Lancet said that the separation from loved ones, loss of freedom, boredom, and uncertainty could cause a deterioration in an individual's mental health status. Moreover, youth aged 15-24 reported the most significant declines in mental health, with a 20 percentage point reduction from 60% (pre-COVID) to 40% (July 2020). 

Fortunately, a great deal of technological innovation has centered around the effective treatment of mental conditions, making professional intervention and resources more accessible to the masses via digital mediums. You just have to take a look at the most recent list of top mental health startups to see the exciting emergence of digital technology in the realm of mental wellness.

Alternatives to In-Person Consultations

Across industries and verticals, the widespread embrace of mobile-first offerings and digital reform has forever altered the way we do business, the way we purchase goods and the way we interact with others. 

Now, in the realm of psychiatric care, digital innovation is paving the way to a new frontier of more accessible mental health support. Leveraging the power and convenience of mobile devices and tablets, health providers can connect with patients and assist with anywhere in the world via mental health apps, virtual counseling, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), digital pills, and platforms powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

Recognizing this momentum, venture capitalists are taking a vested interest in the mental health realm, with a record-breaking $637 million invested in mental health oriented companies in 2019 alone. Currently, 5 of the top 10 venture capital-backed mental health startups are smartphone apps, and, even prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, many of these apps were reporting 3 million new downloads per month.

With the digital healthcare movement in mind, ZoomCare, an Oregon-based, on-demand healthcare company, recently announced that it is now offering mental health therapy as a part of its comprehensive mental health offerings for local residents. This digital offering provides patients with 30-minute, on-demand virtual mental health visits with a licensed therapist. In addition, they offer a variety of other services, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), ADHD/ADD, bipolar disorders, insomnia, and more. 

In June 2020, the FDA also approved the first ‘prescription’ video game designed for children ages 8 to 12 with ADHD. The game’s purpose is simple but impactful: empower young patients to “focus on multiple tasks simultaneously within the game environment.” Preliminary research indicates that prescription video games and VR programs boast promising results in the effective treatment of anxiety, phobias, and more. A number of companies are now also offering patients AI-powered teletherapy support, including chatbots that help patients practice behavioral strategies associated with the effective management and treatment of mental disorders.

Offering these psychiatric services via digital mediums enhances convenience and accessibility by eliminating proximity constraints and provides more affordable care options for patients around the globe. Moreover, an app-based approach to mental healthcare -- better known as “software as a medical device,” or SaMD -- provides enhanced opportunities for data collection and 24/7 patient monitoring. In many ways, digital mental health services can help to reduce or eliminate inefficiencies associated with traditional support while increasing the quality of care for patients anytime, anywhere. 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic specifically, as the availability of in-person care became increasingly limited, these app-based services became integral to individuals seeking support.

Identifying Barriers to Adoption

As we enter this exciting new frontier of patient care, it is essential to identify potential barriers to the widespread adoption of this technology. While the accessibility offered by these platforms is undeniable, there still remains some uncertainty regarding the overall efficacy of these treatment methods in contrast to traditional, in-person care. 

Mental health apps, specifically, offer the benefit of 24/7 monitoring and management resources, in addition to patient data collection and documentation; however, the complex nature of many mental conditions may require the hands-on expertise and diagnosis of specialists. Furthermore, this technology requires more time in-market to effectively measure patient engagement and determine if digital platforms are being readily adopted and effectively utilized by both patients and physicians.

With this in mind, digital mental healthcare is not positioned to replace traditional therapy methods but rather to be leveraged as an alternative or subsequent means of support when in-person treatment is unnecessary or otherwise inaccessible.

Rethinking Technology for Mental Health

From evaluating to symptom tracking, from education to virtual care, technology is reshaping the mental healthcare landscape. Though not appropriate for every situation, innovation in this space is in high demand.

From an adoption perspective, recent studies focused on virtual care reveal that 46% of patients would choose to receive mental health appointments virtually. Gen Z (those born in 1997 or later) are especially open to virtual care; in fact, they are more than four times more likely than Baby Boomers to prefer virtual services to in-person care. Moreover, it is important to note that some communities which have historically struggled to access care due to stigmas and discrimination may prefer virtual or digital care options.

We predict an influx of video-based, remote intervention that strikes a balance between technology and the "human touch" offered by traditional therapy and resources. Moreover, platform developers must be increasingly cognizant of privacy concerns relating to the capture and application of patient data while adhering to emerging regulatory practices as industry standards are established. As more platforms are developed, technology vendors and engineers must work closely with medical professionals to ensure the infrastructure and UI/UX of these platforms effectively addresses the unique needs of a wide variety of patients.

As our world becomes increasingly digitized and influenced by the digital natives of younger generations, technology developed specifically to manage and treat mental health disorders will become increasingly common. While these platforms are unlikely to replace traditional methods altogether, app-based care harnessing the power of wearables, VR, AR, and AI promises a future of enhanced crisis detection, patient screening and monitoring, and 24/7 support in between appointments and treatments. These solutions are not only rich with opportunities for data-backed personalization, but they are also cost-effective and increasingly accessible at a time when the demand for mental health consideration and support has reached a fever pitch.

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