“Mental health apps offer a head start on recovery” – Irish Times, 18/01/18

Here is a piece by Sylvia Thompson on a recent First Fortnight panel discussion I took part in on apps in mental health.

Dr Séamus Mac Suibhne, psychiatrist and member of the Health Service Executive research technology team says that while the task of vetting all apps for their clinical usefulness is virtually impossible, it would be helpful if the Cochrane Collaboration [a global independent network of researchers] had a specific e-health element so it could partner with internet companies to give a meaningful rubber stamp to specific mental health apps.

“There is potential for the use of mental health apps to engage people with diagnosed conditions – particularly younger patients who might stop going to their outpatients appointments,” says Dr Mac Suibhne. However, he cautions their use as a replacement to therapy. “A lot of apps claim to use a psychotherapeutic approach but psychotherapy is about a human encounter and an app can’t replace that,” he says.

Here are some other posts from this blog on these issues:

Here is a post on mental health apps and the military.

Here is a general piece on evidence, clinical credibilty and mental health apps.

Here is my rather sceptical take on a Financial Times piece on smartphones and healthcare.

Here is a piece on the dangers (and dynamics) of hype in health care tech

Here is a post on a paper on the quality of smartphone apps for panic disorder.

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#EHRPersonas – blogpost on CCIO site

Here is a post on the CCIO website on the recent EHR Personas workshop organised by eHealthIreland:

 

The HSE’s Chief Information Officer and the Clinical Strategy and Programmes Directorate are currently developing ‘Personas’ and ‘Scenarios’ to support the introduction of Electronic Health Records (EHR). As part of this project, a series of workshops for those working in the health services and also patients/service users was held on January 31stand February 1st.

One of the challenges of developing an EHR is capturing the diversity of needs it must address. Even a seemingly straightforward clinical setting will involve multiple interactions with multiple information sources. Contemporary mental health practice is focused on the community, but at the same time acute psychiatric units now co-located in acute general hospitals, and mental health issues very commonly arise simultaneously with general health needs, there is considerable overlap with the hospital system. Mental health services increasingly integrate multiple models of mental health, not only a purely medical one; while simultaneously safe psychiatric practice requires access to laboratory and imaging systems to the same degree as other medical disciplines.

Mental health services are therefore interacting with hugely complex information networks. Capturing all this complexity in a useful form is a considerable challenge. Personas and scenarios allow the expertise of patients and clinicians to be synthesised and for assumptions about what an EHR is for and can do to be challenged.

As a participant in a service provider workshop, I naturally enough was grouped with other mental health professionals. Most of our team were mental health nurses – in the community, delivering therapies and liaising with general hospital staff. We also had representation from pharmacy and administration, and myself as a psychiatrist. Other workshops include the diverse range of health professionals that make up a multidisciplinary community mental health team.
The service user persona was Tom, a 19 year old student from Mayo who has recently started university in Dublin. Tom’s friends notice he is more withdrawn and generally “not himself” and are sufficiently concerned to persuade him to attend the college health services where he sees a GP. There a physical examination, blood work and a urine drug screen are performed. A referral is made via HealthLink to a community mental health team. However a couple of nights later Tom becomes much more distressed and tells his friends he needs to escape from black-coated men following him everywhere. Tom’s friends bring him to the local Emergency Department where he is medically assessed and referred for a psychiatric opinion.

The scenario attempted to address how an EHR would address multiple issues that effect current mental health practice – from communication between primary care and mental health services to the avoiding duplication of investigations and of questioning.

One of the most persistent items of feedback from mental health service users is the initial contact with services involving much repetition of the same questions – often including biographical and demographic data – at a time of distress and anxiety.There is also frequently repetition of investigations and physical examinations, even when these have already been performed.

In our scenario, the situation developed with Tom deciding to move back home to Mayo and re-presenting to his local GP. This brought up a whole range of issues around the interaction between primary care, student health services, the mental health services across different catchment areas and regions. In our group, we discussed how the issue of access to the National Shared Record could play out with various permutations of consent from Tom, and the impact this could have on his care.

The second persona focused on a community mental health nurse, Ann, on her daily routine of calling to service users across a geographically dispersed mixed urban/rural area, engaging with clients at various stages of recovery, and administering treatments such as depot injections of antipsychotic medication and centrally dispensed medication such as clozapine. In our scenario we introduced features typical of remote working in an environment where mobile connections are not always reliable. Features such as the ability to work offline and upload updated records when back online were discussed.

In both service user and clinician scenarios, it became clear that if technology is to improve how health systems work for the benefit of the patient, it is in many ways by becoming invisible, by making the clinical interaction frictionless and about the person at its heart. The need for repeated, intrusive and unnecessary investigations – and questioning – could be reduced, allowing therapeutic interactions to take place unhindered. Both personas, and both scenarios, reinforced for me that the health system must have the service user – such as Tom – at its heart, and the delivery of healthcare is ultimately by people – such as Ann.

At its best, technology can enable this ultimately deeply personal interaction, rather than acting as another barrier, another “system” to be navigated.

“evolved strategy”: Online CBT provider Joyable lays off 20, shifts focus from direct-to-consumer to employers, providers

From MobiHealthNews:

“We let a number of talented people and friends go this week,” CEO Peter Shalek said in an emailed statement. “We did this in order to refocus our efforts on partnering with employers, insurers, and providers to increase access to evidence-based mental health care and to reduce costs. We are positioned financially to pursue this new strategy over the next several years. We’ve built a product known for having the best engagement and outcomes of any mental health-focused digital therapeutic, and we believe that our evolved strategy will allow us to reach and help the most people.”

In an interview, Shalek clarified that Joyable’s direct-to-consumer offering, an online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and coaching program for social anxiety, isn’t going away completely: people currently using it will still be able to use it and new sign-ups will still be supported. But the company won’t put any more resources into developing or marketing the direct-to-consumer offering, and most of the staff involved in marketing and support for that product specifically were let go.

Shalek said that the company had always planned to go in this direction anyway and that, while they reached a lot of people, they recognized that the best way to move the needle meaningfully on social anxiety would be to help more people, which the company could accomplish by targeting populations that don’t need to pay for the service directly (the company charges individuals $23 per week for a 12-week course after a seven-day free trial).

With Joyable’s platform, first users are paired with a coach who has been trained in CBT techniques. Before starting the program, users are invited to speak to the coach for 30 minutes on a phone call about how social anxiety affects them and what they want to get out of the program. After that, the program helps consumers identify and understand their social anxiety triggers. Users must complete activities such as challenging anxious thoughts with evidence and developing alternative thoughts that are more helpful. Each activity takes around 10 minutes to complete.

From there, Joyable teaches users techniques to reduce their anxiety by putting themselves in anxious situations and working on applying the skills they learned. The coach supports the user throughout the program through text and email, and the user can also reach out for help whenever they want. The program is available online, and can also be accessed from smartphones and tablets.

One does wonder how much of Shalek’s statement on “evolved strategy” and the assurance “we always intended to go this direction anyway” masks a certain realisation that many online mental health providers are coming to: that, for all the hype and optimistic rhetoric about empowering “consumers”, ultimately engaging providers is a necessity for these technologies to actually reach the potential users who could benefit most.

“The Wild West of Health” care: mental health Apps, evidence, and clinical credibility

We read and hear much about the promise of mobile health. Crucial in the acceptance of mobile health by the clinical community is clinical credibility. And now, clinical credibility is synonymous with evidence, and just “evidence” but reliable, solid evidence. I’ve blogged before about studies of the quality of mental health smartphone apps. I missed this piece from Nature which, slightly predictably, is titled “Mental Health: There’s an app for that.” (isn’t “there’s an App for that a little 2011-ish though?) It begins by surveying the immense range of mental health-focused apps out there:

 

Type ‘depression’ into the Apple App Store and a list of at least a hundred programs will pop up on the screen. There are apps that diagnose depression (Depression Test), track moods (Optimism) and help people to “think more positive” (Affirmations!). There’s Depression Cure Hypnosis (“The #1 Depression Cure Hypnosis App in the App Store”), Gratitude Journal (“the easiest and most effective way to rewire your brain in just five minutes a day”), and dozens more. And that’s just for depression. There are apps pitched at people struggling with anxiety, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders and addiction.

The article also has a snazzy  infographic illustrating both the lack of mental health services and the size of the market:

naturegraph

The meat of the article, however, focuses on the lack of evidence and evaluation of these apps. There is a cultural narrative which states that Technology = Good and Efficient, Healthcare = Bad and Broken and which can give the invocation of Tech the status of a godterm, pre-empting critical thought. The Nature piece, however, starkly illustrates the evidence gap:

But the technology is moving a lot faster than the science. Although there is some evidence that empirically based, well-designed mental-health apps can improve outcomes for patients, the vast majority remain unstudied. They may or may not be effective, and some may even be harmful. Scientists and health officials are now beginning to investigate their potential benefits and pitfalls more thoroughly, but there is still a lot left to learn and little guidance for consumers.

“If you type in ‘depression’, its hard to know if the apps that you get back are high quality, if they work, if they’re even safe to use,” says John Torous, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, who chairs the American Psychiatric Association’s Smartphone App Evaluation Task Force. “Right now it almost feels like the Wild West of health care.”

There isn’t an absolute lack of evidence, but there are issues with  much of the evidence that is out there:

Much of the research has been limited to pilot studies, and randomized trials tend to be small and unreplicated. Many studies have been conducted by the apps’ own developers, rather than by independent researchers. Placebo-controlled trials are rare, raising the possibility that a ‘digital placebo effect’ may explain some of the positive outcomes that researchers have documented, says Torous. “We know that people have very strong relationships with their smartphones,” and receiving messages and advice through a familiar, personal device may be enough to make some people feel better, he explains.

And even saying that (and, in passing, I would note that in branch of medical practice, a placebo effect is something to be harnessed, not denigrated – but in evaluation and study, rigorously minimising it is crucial) there is a considerable lack of evidence:

But the bare fact is that most apps haven’t been tested at all. A 2013 review8 identified more than 1,500 depression-related apps in commercial app stores but just 32 published research papers on the subject. In another study published that year9, Australian researchers applied even more stringent criteria, searching the scientific literature for papers that assessed how commercially available apps affected mental-health symptoms or disorders. They found eight papers on five different apps.

The same year, the NHS launched a library of “safe and trusted” health apps that included 14 devoted to treating depression or anxiety. But when two researchers took a close look at these apps last year, they found that only 4 of the 14 provided any evidence to support their claims10. Simon Leigh, a health economist at Lifecode Solutions in Liverpool, UK, who conducted the analysis, says he wasn’t shocked by the finding because efficacy research is costly and may mean that app developers have less to spend on marketing their products.

Like any healthcare intervention, an App can have adverse effects:

When a team of Australian researchers reviewed 82 commercially available smartphone apps for people with bipolar disorder12, they found that some presented information that was “critically wrong”. One, called iBipolar, advised people in the middle of a manic episode to drink hard liquor to help them to sleep, and another, called What is Biopolar Disorder, suggested that bipolar disorder could be contagious. Neither app seems to be available any more.

And even more fundamentally, in some situations the App concept itself and the close relationship with gamification can backfire:

Even well-intentioned apps can produce unpredictable outcomes. Take Promillekoll, a smartphone app created by Sweden’s government-owned liquor retailer, designed to help curb risky drinking. While out at a pub or a party, users enter each drink they consume and the app spits out an approximate blood-alcohol concentration.

When Swedish researchers tested the app on college students, they found that men who were randomly assigned to use the app ended up drinking more frequently than before, although their total alcohol consumption did not increase. “We can only speculate that app users may have felt more confident that they could rely on the app to reduce negative effects of drinking and therefore felt able to drink more often,” the researchers wrote in their 2014 paper13.

It’s also possible, the scientists say, that the app spurred male students to turn drinking into a game. “I think that these apps are kind of playthings,” says Anne Berman, a clinical psychologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and one of the study’s authors. There are other risks too. In early trials of ClinTouch, researchers found that the symptom-monitoring app actually exacerbated symptoms for a small number of patients with psychotic disorders, says John Ainsworth at the University of Manchester, who helped to develop the app. “We need to very carefully manage the initial phases of somebody using this kind of technology and make sure they’re well monitored,” he says.

I am very glad to read that one of the mHealth apps which is a model of evidence based practice is one that I have both used and recommended myself – Sleepio:

sleepio-logo

One digital health company that has earned praise from experts is Big Health, co-founded by Colin Espie, a sleep scientist at the University of Oxford, UK, and entrepreneur Peter Hames. The London-based company’s first product is Sleepio, a digital treatment for insomnia that can be accessed online or as a smartphone app. The app teaches users a variety of evidence-based strategies for tackling insomnia, including techniques for managing anxious and intrusive thoughts, boosting relaxation, and establishing a sleep-friendly environment and routine.

Before putting Sleepio to the test, Espie insisted on creating a placebo version of the app, which had the same look and feel as the real app, but led users through a set of sham visualization exercises with no known clinical benefits. In a randomized trial, published in 2012, Espie and his colleagues found that insomniacs using Sleepio reported greater gains in sleep efficiency — the percentage of time someone is asleep, out of the total time he or she spends in bed — and slightly larger improvements in daytime functioning than those using the placebo app15. In a follow-up 2014 paper16, they reported that Sleepio also reduced the racing, intrusive thoughts that can often interfere with sleep.

The Sleepio team is currently recruiting participants for a large, international trial and has provided vouchers for the app to several groups of independent researchers so that patients who enrol in their studies can access Sleepio for free.

sleepioprog

This is extremely heartening – and as stated above, clinical credibility is key in the success of any eHealth / mHealth approach. And what does clinical credibility really mean? That something works, and works well.

 

 

Quality of Smartphone Apps Related to Panic Disorder

More discoveries from Planet Embase:

Quality of smartphone apps related to panic: smartphone apps have a growing role in health care. This study assessed the quality of English-language apps for panic disorder (PD) and compared paid and free apps. Keywords related to PD were entered into the Google Play Store search engine. Apps were assessed using the following quality indicators: accountability, interactivity, self-help score (the potential of smartphone apps to help users in daily life), and evidence-based content quality. The Brief DISCERN score and the criteria of the “Health on the Net” label were also used as content quality indicators as well as the number of downloads. Of 247 apps identified, 52 met all inclusion criteria. The content quality and self-help scores of these PD apps were poor. None of the assessed indicators were associated with payment status or number of downloads. Multiple linear regressions showed that the Brief DISCERN score significantly predicted the content quality and self-help scores. Poor content quality and self-help scores of PD smartphone apps highlight the gap between their technological potential and the overall quality of available products.

In this case, the full paper is available here . From the introduction:

 

A number of recent studies have assessed the quality of medically oriented apps in various fields, such as smoking cessation, weight management, sleep, cancer, and diabetes (1436). While acknowledging the potential opportunity offered by apps-related technologies, these studies concluded that the apps available from different stores, with few exceptions, were of overall poor quality. A gap was furthermore found between the considerable number of apps related to medical conditions available in stores and the low number of peer-reviewed papers about them (37). In particular, despite their potential to improve health care, mental health apps currently available in stores lack scientific evidence about their efficacy (38). With few exceptions (3941), preliminary findings reported for health apps were similar to previous findings on the poor quality of health information websites (4246).

Unsurprisingly then, the authors find that the quality of apps “for” Panic Disorder is …. poor.

 Despite expectations about the potential of PD apps to improve treatments (51, 52), the apps available to users from stores to date need to be improved and to include more patterns of evidence-based information, more interactive assessments, such as ecological momentary assessments (67), and more self-help options.

Crowds aren’t always wise:

Factors related to the community success of a given app, such as the number of downloads and whether the app was recommended, as well as factors linked to the economic model, such as payment status or a link to paid content, were not associated with content quality or self-help scores. This is somewhat surprising, particularly in regard to the number of downloads. One might expect better quality for the most downloaded apps. The results are possibly limited by the assessments of apps found only on the Google Play Store as well as by the small number of apps with a high amount of downloads (only three apps with more than 5000 downloads).