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What’s the next frontier of technology in mental health?

by Tracy Williams

By Professor Sabine Bahn, Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of Psyomics

Technology was always going to impact the next phase of evolution within the health sector. But now that new technologies are available, what is next in the mental health space? According to MHFA England, 70-75% of people with diagnosable mental illness receive no treatment at all. The choice of either medication or psychotherapy is often not the solution and a full psychiatric assessment is mostly not accessible for the growing number of patients we are seeing. Every individual needs to be treated according to their personal need and offered the appropriate support and care. Due to Covid-19, hospitals and medical staff are even more overworked and understaffed but technology can provide answers and help alleviate this growing crisis.

Technology can help provide insight and relief at an earlier stage in a patient’s course of illness, pre-empting and regulating issues such as feeling uncared for as well as the impact on self-worth and anxiety. The real question is what needs to come next? How can we innovate to create clinical efficiencies and assist healthcare professionals in supporting and caring for patients with more severe mental health concerns?

The First Wave

The HealthTech space is now one of the most popular and well-funded areas of technology, one that will increasingly be relied upon to solve healthcare problems around the world. Since the beginning of Covid-19, research shows the global surge in investment, especially in those areas which support social distancing measures, such as remote treatment and monitoring of existing illnesses. We have also witnessed the first wave of technology innovation in mental health with the rise of apps that aim to address mental health symptoms such as anxiety, low mood and problems with sleep such as insomnia.

The Covid-19 pandemic coupled with campaigns aimed at breaking down stigma, has raised awareness of mental health, and encouraged many to download apps such as Calm and Headspace to help manage anxiety and stress. While these apps are incredibly useful and crucial for some, for others with more severe symptoms they may only paper over the cracks, providing temporary or no relief from distressing symptoms as they do not identify the root cause of a mental health concern.

This presents an opportunity to use technology within mental health in a more sophisticated way – to address the full spectrum of psychiatric concerns and move away from a one-size-fits-all wellbeing approach. This year the UK government has pledged £32 million for HealthTech projects, demonstrating the ongoing support for the sector. Despite this, no research yet shows the proposed breakdown between sectors or what constitutes mental health technology.

App-based solutions are hugely valuable and have their place in the toolkit for addressing mental health concerns, but it’s important to recognise their limitations. As the UK’s healthcare system looks to adopt more mental health technology within its service provision, the focus must be on more holistic solutions that aim to tackle the real root of the problem for a wider range of people.

The evolution of mental health tech

A concern associated with existing digital health solutions is the heavy reliance on self-diagnosis. A patient must have a sufficient understanding of their condition and then be able to select the right course of action. But psychiatric diagnoses are complex, with overlapping symptoms. Consequently, many people are misdiagnosing themselves, resulting in unnecessary suffering. There is a great need for more in-depth, clinician-led solutions that evaluate the complex presentation of mental health concerns, identifying both where psychiatric diagnosis and treatment is, or is not, required.

Most currently available mental health apps do not attempt to unravel psychiatric symptoms to formulate an accurate diagnosis but utilise a ‘simplistic’ approach which frequently results in under-, over- or misdiagnosis of psychiatric conditions.

Particularly over the course of this year, given the challenges presented by Covid, there has been a movement towards tech that replaces the human element, rather than developing technology to complement and enhance the invaluable human involvement. However, the long-term way forward must be more nuanced, focused on patient-centric care which will enable better diagnosis and, in turn, connect people with the appropriate treatment and care.

There is scope to build on existing solutions with a deeper approach to diagnosis, supporting healthcare practitioners at the stage of diagnosis, treatment choice and triage. Gaining a better understanding of the root of the problem increases the likeliness of better outcomes for those that require more involved interventions.

Ultimately, the future is in holistic, blended-care solutions that facilitate more efficient and personalised care for individuals. But there is a clear need for more focus to be placed on encouraging practitioners and patients to buy into this future. The drive for innovation should always be applauded, but it is the drive for adoption that remains the greater challenge.

The onus is on the HealthTech sector to demonstrate the advantages of these more sophisticated, digital solutions to overworked GPs who are lacking resources. Not only can these technologies create valuable efficiencies for medical professionals, but they also provide a comprehensive integrated solution that supports the whole system rather than tackling small sections of it.

In order for this next wave of innovation to be a success, the mental health tech sector must build solutions that speak to the pain points of both clinicians and patients. If we can make this happen, the impact on thousands of lives will be tangible and transformative.

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