Technology is evolving the way we approach behavioral healthcare. From streamlining access to care, to measuring its impact and even delivering care through new emerging platforms like AI, there is no denying this wave of innovation is making an impact on the lives of people with mental health conditions.
While it’s easy to be consumed by the latest technology and the potential influence it could have, it’s important to remember the ultimate role these platforms should play when it comes to improved patient outcomes. Especially when dealing with something as important as a person’s mental health, the human component is critical in all aspects.
Put simply: The future of behavioral health should always be human-first.
When we think of what makes tech or process human-first, we are looking to build and design products with elements that focus on the end-user, solve human problems, are designed to reflect tomorrow, not today, and adapt to evolving people, not vice versa. If we are keeping these foundational elements at the forefront of product development, then we are aligning with what people need.
The ongoing mental health crisis that was exacerbated by the pandemic paved the way for the emergence and acceptance of many new technologies. With over 50 million Americans experiencing mental health symptoms, and a shortage of qualified therapists able to treat them, too many people were unable to access the care they needed. Technology has played a significant role in helping to close the gaps in care while opening the door to new treatment options, access points and resources.
Improving access to care is one of the most important ways that technology has improved behavioral health. For example, telehealth apps and platforms make it possible for people to connect with mental health providers from anywhere, regardless of their location or transportation constraints. This can be especially helpful for people who have difficulty leaving their home, or for those who live in rural areas where provider shortages make in-person care difficult.
More recently, cutting-edge Artificial Intelligence (AI) has emerged to offer advancements in how behavioral health conditions are diagnosed and treated by analyzing vast amounts of health data and research to aid in diagnosing mental health conditions and providing treatment plans for providers. In the same realm, AI-driven chatbots and virtual therapists are also being used to offer immediate support and interventions.
Virtual Reality (VR) is another exciting area that could benefit patients in new ways. VR technology has shown promise in treating various behavioral health conditions, such as phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety disorders. VR therapy offers a new avenue for patients to engage in exposure therapy in a controlled and safe virtual environment.
Wearables such as Apple Watches and the Google Pixel Watch, have also played an integral role in improving behavioral health outcomes by their ability to monitor physical activity and heart rate. For example, individuals with anxiety can rely on their wearable to detect increased heart rates as a warning sign for high anxiety, or worse, when they are on the verge of a panic attack. Additionally, a sudden drop-in physical activity over an extended period of time could indicate a depressive episode.
All these innovations add valuable options that could potentially help in treating people with mental health conditions. But as we consider where and how to use new technology, it’s important to never lose sight of the fact that we need to be solving for the human. In behavioral healthcare, the human element is still essential – that’s why we need to stay focused on finding ways to integrate technology into a human-first approach.
Human-first behavioral health
As healthcare providers, payers and software developers design different care pathways for the people they serve, they need to apply careful thought to the places where technology can aid along the way without subsuming the process all together. We need to ask ourselves, are we building around the need of patient and provider connection? In many cases, patient acuity will help determine where and how technology is applied and, generally speaking, higher-acuity patients will require more human interaction. But the pathway to care is not one-size-fits all and should adapt to the needs of the patient.
As an example, body language, tone of voice and other human expressions are things that only another human can interpret effectively. This type of connection is a critical part of the provider/patient relationship during counseling sessions. It could never be replaced by a chatbot, and depending on the circumstances, live interaction via telehealth may not be an appropriate substitution either.
Similarly, there are areas on the pathway to care where a human element is irreplicable. Smart intake applications – either online or via mobile app – can be powered by “if/then” rules and even AI, but they can’t fully replace the human-to-human connection. For a person seeking care, calling their health plan, speaking live to another person, and sharing their challenges and struggles can make a significant difference in choosing the clinically appropriate pathway, even elevating a person to a crisis hotline or immediate clinical intervention based on their presenting behavior. Getting the right care from the start will accelerate the care journey and improve the probability of positive outcomes.
The people helping plan members through their journey can – and should – be guided by technology, and there is a time and place where chatbots or online forms can play a role in lowering administrative burdens and speeding the path to care. But again, what matters is how the underlining technology and process is built around solving for the human needs of its users and creating a better future.
Ultimately, mental healthcare is very personal. It’s not technical. It doesn’t need artificial people. It needs personal connection – between two PEOPLE. This is the exact reason why many providers enter the field to begin with. The personal connection, understanding and communicating with a patient is the most important part of the work that keeps them energized and motivated.
Technology can be a valuable tool in behavioral health. By integrating technology into a human-first approach, we can improve access to care, measure the impact of care, and provide more personalized, impactful and effective treatment.