I have spent decades working to drive the success of the digital health agenda in Australia, in particular, digital medical records for healthcare providers. Sharing data about our patients improves the outcome for patients. In a personal capacity, I am equally passionate about improving healthcare for all, with mental health being a stand out of particular importance.
Private healthcare providers are also realising the gap that exists in caring for mental health patients once they leave their care. Digital apps are proving to be the differentiator in keeping a connection with these patients.
The startling statistics
According to The Department of Health (Australia) and the Black Dog Institute; “Almost half (45%) of Australians experienced a mental illness in their lifetime and 54% of people with mental illness do not access any treatment. This is worsened by delayed treatment due to serious problems in detection and accurate diagnosis. The proportion of people with mental illness accessing treatment is half that of people with physical disorders”.
In 2001 The World Health Organization noted that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.
In this Insight I wanted to focus on the area on mental health in the broader context. So, while Vitro Software has a number of clients that offer mental health services, and we are working with them to digitalise their content so they can provide users of their services with improved care and outcomes, mental health solutions can start with the person. In a digital context, this can be through apps that individuals can use to start addressing their mental health journey.
Mental health apps
Since the development of the first mental health app circa 2010, around 10,000 depression and anxiety-related self-help apps have been introduced to the market.
While earlier apps were commonly designed for mood disorders, in particular for younger people experiencing mild symptoms of anxiety and distress, technology along with societal acceptance of its use to assist in the management of medical ailments, has resulted in significant advancements.
One of the first mental health apps to be developed in Australia was mycompass.org.au, created by the Black Dog Institute. The current version of this app is now being used by suburban doctors as an initial screening initiative when patients present to their regular GP for consultation.
In fact, there are now multiple apps which are used to monitor and support mental health disorders which are mild to intermediate, many of which have the support of state and federal government.
While awareness of mental ill-health continues to increase, the stigma remains, despite significant improvement in this area.
Therefore, apps that encourage people to take control of their mental health challenges are a significant breakthrough for those suffering.
Particularly for those with mild symptoms of anxiety and depression - mental health apps can assist in preventing the decline into a solitary mindset, by offering an ongoing support mechanism that leaves them more in control and able to decide their own level of engagement.
Engaging - positive first steps
Research shows that engaging is one of the most difficult things to do for people with mental health.
So being able to obtain advice and support without having to speak to someone in the first instance can be a positive first step towards long term success.
The objective is for the individual to engage in the AI sense before being confident that they are ready to talk to a human being, potentially removing that feeling hopelessness.
One such app, targeted specifically to young people suffering mild to moderate mental illness is Onlyhuman.
According to onlyhuman developer Epiphany Morgan, for people suffering with severe mental illness, most apps can only really offer a doorway to more engaged face to face care and treatment options. But this doorway is important and worthwhile as many consumers suffering from severe mental illness are left isolated and untreated.”
Unfortunately, of the tens of thousands of apps that are now available, only around 1% have been professionally evaluated, as there are currently no enforced standards or regulations.
As a result, many mental health apps are poorly designed and not clinically validated, leading to limited use at best and catastrophic consequences at worse.
If apps are not credentialed and peer reviewed by psychologists and psychiatrists, the patient could be given the wrong information which could be disastrous.
To create onlyhuman, Ms Morgan says the team had both a clinical advisory board consisting of two clinical psychologists and a consumer feedback loop.
A word of caution
“To release a mental health app however you do not need any certification or proof that it has been developed with clinical professionals.
“This responsibility therefore falls onto the user to research the validity of the app they wish to use.
“As we move forward we want to work to educate more clinicians about our app and our validity so they feel confident in having an alternative to offer their patients.”
Overall though, the growth of mental health apps is a positive advancement for those experiencing mental ill-health - put simply, we know these approaches work.
They are designed to teach many of the same skills that therapists try to teach people. Digital tools for mental health are critical for people who are unable, or unwilling, to attend a therapist’s office.
In the future, patients would benefit from more smarts around the apps, tracking results around improvement or decline.
Of particular benefit would be more apps for people who have been hospitalised - developed by hospitals such as Healthscope, Ramsay and Calvary Care - where patients are released from care and can manage their progress in conjunction with medical professionals, via an app.
The use of apps on an ongoing basis enables individual data on risk factors to be collected, enabling practitioners to develop more personalised programs by detecting symptoms of mental health.
Further, apps are able to allow those in regional areas to access treatment and keep connected to professionals.
The online mental health service of St Vincent’s Hospital, This Way Up, along with the University of New South Wales, have developed a suite of apps, which provide access to proven anxiety and depression treatments.
The use of mental health apps also provides an opportunity for patients to keep track of their own progress and keep in more regular contact with practitioners, who in turn, will be able to more easily access data on their patients.
While caution is crucial, mental health apps have the potential to help hospitals and practitioners better manage after-care and progress, reducing paperwork, and enabling improved communication with patients.
Berne Gibbons - Director, Vitro Software
Berne Gibbons has a background in Nursing and the Pharmaceutical Industry spanning 30 years, she has held senior roles such as Product Manager for Anaesthetics at Glaxo Wellcome, Head of Hospitals at Mayne Health Pharmaceutical Wholesale, CEO for Central Hospital Supplies and Managing Director for Vitro Software Pty Ltd where she is still a Director on the local Board and is intimately involved in leading the growth of the organisation.
Berne has been committed to advancing Digital health in Australia for over 15 years. This has included a number of major e-health projects including the successful bid for the PCEHR Infrastructure contract when she was Head of Health for Telstra and has consistently contributed to progression of technology to improve healthcare for all Australians. Berne is also a Founding Member of the Medical Cannabis Council. Berne was the Innaugural Chair of the AIIA National Special Interest Group for Health, is a member of the Dean of Health Advisory Board at UTS and an Associate Professor of Healthcare Industry at UTS. She is a member of the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse Integrative Medicine Committee, as well as a Board member on the NFP organisation Pathfinders with a special interest in registering the Births of Aboriginal people. Berne consulted to the Australian Digital Health Agency delivering a strategic Framework for Interoperability for healthcare systems in Australia.