Can Smartphones Help Patients with Behavioral Health Disorders?

January 31, 2017

eHealthcare Pulse

// By Jane Weber Brubaker //

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center“One in four Americans experiences a mental illness or substance abuse disorder each year, and the majority also has a comorbid physical health condition,” says the American Hospital Association (AHA). Treating mental illness contributes significantly to overall healthcare costs. Health Affairs reported last year that Americans spent more on mental disorders than any other medical condition in 2013—a whopping $201 billion.

Is there a role for digital technologies in diagnosing and treating mental illnesses? Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) is investigating how data from smartphones could shed light on what happens between visits to the clinic.

John Torous, co-director of the Digital Psychiatry Program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

John Torous, co-director of the Digital Psychiatry Program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

“Using smartphones and people’s personal devices and sensors to collect information and learn about mental health wasn’t a very big field or active research area four or five years ago,” says John Torous, co-director of the digital psychiatry program at BIDMC, a Harvard Medical School-affiliated teaching hospital, where he also serves as a staff psychiatrist and clinical informatics fellow. “There was actually this belief that people with mental illness or psychiatric conditions didn’t own technology or want to use technology as part of their healthcare.”

Both assumptions proved to be incorrect. “We did a pretty simple study of patients in the psychiatry clinic. We just said, ‘Do you own a smart phone? And are you interested in apps for mental health?'” says Torous. The response was overwhelmingly positive from patients. “So we realized that perhaps there was an unmet need or an untapped potential in this space.”

Health systems have gotten better at coordinating care and helping patients manage chronic diseases. But physical health is not the whole picture. How can providers begin to address both the physical and mental health of patients? Can technology help?

Here, we’ll explore how researchers at BIDMC and Harvard School of Public Health are tapping into new data streams that paint a much more detailed picture of patients’ lives between clinic visits. We’ll also take a look at behavioral health apps for consumers—a category that is growing fast—and a framework to evaluate them. How are you guiding your patients to the right tools to optimize their whole health?


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