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May 11, 2017

Can Apps Manage Mental Health?

Summary:

Smartphone apps are perfect for, say, detecting depression by watching for a fall in exercise and movement and fewer social interactions.

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Improved awareness and recognition of mental health problems and their complexity puts pressure on health systems to increase care. In turn, this stimulates exploration of the potential value of software applications (apps) run on mobile devices. The ubiquity of smartphones makes them an ideal tool for apps that can help individuals manage mental health.

Apps create long-term patient health data in a way episodic clinic consultations cannot and generate a personal health record fundamentally different from a clinical patient record. Doctors have much to gain from the gaps in information being filled by continuous monitoring in this way. Insurers also can benefit from the potential of this technology, especially for claims.

Health apps used on mobile devices can monitor physiological cues associated with sleep disturbance, anxiety, depression, phobias and psychosis. For example, depression is associated with a fall in activity levels – less exercise, movement and fewer social interactions. Sensors in smartphones can help spot patterns of altered behavior that may represent the early warning signs of lowered mood.

See also: New Approach to Mental Health  

Some apps help diagnose problems. Others help people track and manage mood using self-assessment techniques augmented by coaching functionality. Online environments are a gateway to support from more specialist clinical resources. The resources allow patients more control of their mental health management while enabling clinicians to monitor and support them remotely. (Read my blog, “The Growing Impact of Wearables on Digital Health and Insurance.”)

Apps can also help with treatment by sending reminders about medication or appointments, regardless of the person’s location. And they can provide distraction from cravings or link with social networks at times of stress. This “nudging” is effective at altering behavior; for example, integrating text messaging in smoking cessation programs improved six-month cessation rates by 71% compared with the regular treatment.

However, work remains to be done before apps can integrate with insurers’ processes. The confidentiality and use of personal data generated and stored by apps is complicated and needs clarification. The accuracy and sufficiency of information is a potential concern, and hardware constraints may limit potential. More evaluation of the impact of digital technology is needed in research and clinical practice.

See also: Not Your Mama’s Recipe for Healthcare  

Meanwhile, insurers could engage with emerging providers of software solutions. Services like these will, over a relatively short time, become highly influential in the lives of people living with mental health problems. Pilot schemes that compare current insurance methods while evaluating new ones would take us one big step forward.

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About the Author

Ross Campbell is chief underwriter, research and development, based in Gen Re’s London office.

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