HSC researcher weighs options, benefits of mobile mental health technologies

By Sally Crocker

Mental Health Apps Web

Desktop and mobile health technologies have emerged as a bright spot during the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping patients connected with their health providers as an alternative to in-office visits.

Mental health technologies have come to the forefront recently as viable options for support of psychiatric disorders, linking patients with physicians, therapies and help networks via their smartphones and handheld electronic devices.

Scott Walters
Dr. Scott Walters, HSC School of Public Health Regents Professor.

These types of mental health tools and applications gained a boost in April when the FDA eased regulations and released updated guidelines recognizing their use as a means of reducing contact and potential exposure during the pandemic.

In a new research report published by Psychiatric Research and Clinical Practice, HSC School of Public Health Regents Professor Scott Walters, PhD, and colleague Steven J. Ondersma, PhD, from Wayne State University, provide timely advice for clinicians considering mental health applications for their patients.

“While we didn’t envision when we wrote the article how much telehealth and digital solutions would grow in importance during 2020, the recommendations we give are very much in synch with current guidance for patients who cannot be seen in person during COVID-19,” Dr. Walters said.

The two researchers have a background in technology-delivered assessment and behavioral and motivational health interventions.

Their paper gives an overview of the ways computer and mobile technologies have been used to treat substance use, smoking, depression, anxiety, sleep and eating disorders and other conditions to help patients self-manage and connect with supportive care resources. The technologies also allow patients to track symptoms and triggers, develop and practice new skills, set goals and build healthier lifestyle habits.

The authors also review ways that mental health providers can evaluate evidence-based, technology-delivered interventions from an application development standpoint and with regard to security and privacy, effectiveness, ease of use, compatibility with medical record systems and cost.

“We found approximately 1,400 apps promoting different aspects of mental health. This underscores the key role that providers play in recommending these tools to people who need them,” Dr. Walters said. “It’s crucial for clinicians to understand and apply the same rigor in evaluating these tools as they would other mental health interventions, according to the best fit and quality for their patients.”

The recent proliferation of mental health apps could be compared to the many choices in COVID-19 masks that consumers now find online, Dr. Walters said.

“Trying to evaluate can be a challenge with so many options. Which one is most effective? Most practical? How much does it cost? The history is so short, that there are sometimes not enough user ratings or qualified reviews to know. The expert must make a recommendation based on their judgment,” he said.

Technology has rapidly transformed healthcare in recent years. During the pandemic, it seems mental health care will be reshaped significantly by social distancing and online options, Dr. Walters said.

“Less strict FDA regulations can be a good-bad thing – good if the interventions are really effective in helping patients,” he said.

In the past, providers might recommend homework like journaling or similar assignments to help their patients continue therapies between office visits. Now, there are other options, including many that people can access on their own.

Regardless of the methods, however, the important role of mental health providers remains the same – in a new and changing environment, their knowledge and expertise is key in guiding patients to the right tools.

“We have 100 years of research on traditional treatment methods – yes, psychiatry is that old – with about 10 or 20 years of experience in apps and web-based tools, so there’s still more to explore,” Dr. Walters said.

“COVID-19 presents an interesting opportunity for mental health professionals to guide their patients as they make important decisions.”

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