Can Apps Set the Mood for Managing Mental Health?
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 they generate a personal health record fundamentally different from a clinical patient record.1 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 behaviour that may represent the early warning signs of lowered mood.
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 behaviour; for example, integrating text messaging in smoking cessation programmes improved six-month cessation rates by 71% compared to the regular treatment.2
However, work remains to be done before apps can integrate with insurer’s 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 while hardware constraints may limit potential. More evaluation of the impact of digital technology is needed in research and clinical practice.3
Meanwhile, insurers could engage with emerging providers of software solutions. Services like these will, over a relatively short time horizon, 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.
This blog ends our mental health blog series. Mental health is the leading cause of work absence, and people with mental health disorders have excess mortality relative to others. Our series has included contributions from our experts in Australia, Germany, India, the UK and U.S. We have discussed the language used to describe and discuss mental health problems and the influence of workplace stress, stigma and culture in the context of life and health insurance.
- Marley, J. and Farooq, S., (2015) Mobile telephone apps in mental health practice: uses, opportunities and challenges, The British Journal of Psychiatry (2015), 39, 288-290, doi: 10.1192/pb.bp.114.050005.
- Whittaker, R. et al Mobile phone based interventions for smoking cessation. Chochran Database Systematic Review. 2012;11. CD006611. Doi:10.1002/14651858.CD006611.pub3.
- Hayes, JF., Maughan, DL., Grant-Peterkin, H. (2016) Promotion of mental health and prevention of mental disorder in the digital age, The British Journal of Psychiatry (2016) 208, 205–207. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.114.161067.