Behavioral health is often regarded as the Cinderella of healthcare. It’s a specialty that is poorly funded and rarely at the cutting edge of service innovation or therapeutic breakthroughs. The health economic burden is huge and the life expectancy of people with a serious mental illness is substantially reduced. Behavioral health conditions are difficult to treat, monitoring outcomes is challenging and, if treatment is sub-optimal, risk is high. All in all, it’s not a very happy story.
Behavioral healthcare has been hampered by many things, including the clinical consultation process. Compare a psychiatric consultation with the clinic visit of a respiratory physician; he listens to a patient’s chest and takes a spirometer reading to assess progress. The cardiologist checks the patient’s heart murmur and blood pressure, and the gastroenterologist runs some labs and examines the patient on the couch. Behavioral healthcare lacks comparable quantitative measures to assist diagnosis, assess disease severity, and monitor treatment response. Clinicians can use rating scales to evaluate psychiatric symptoms, but they take time to administer in the clinic. So, we talk to our patients to assess progress and to detect subtle signals and changes. Of course, we complete a physical examination from time to time and we watch our patients as we talk to them, but the backbone of a routine psychiatric follow-up is a structured conversation and questions — not a physical exam, not labs.
It’s this characteristic of behavioral healthcare that will enable Cinderella to shed her rags and step into the limelight. Health informatics is providing a unique and wonderful opportunity for psychiatric care, and it’s a break-through that is not available on the same scale to other specialties because they don’t “just talk.”
Digital health technologies offer the potential for close and cost-effective, long-term remote monitoring of patients with mental health disorders. Smartphone applications and patient-facing Web portals enable patients and caretakers to assess and report status to the clinical team on a regular basis from home. Behavioral health is ideally suited also for telehealth assessments and therapeutic interventions; enabling rapid, cost-effective, efficient, and convenient care delivery.
The potential impact of a digitally-enabled behavioral health ecosystem is enormous.
Remotely collected data, or patient reported outcomes (PRO), using apps and Web portals allow clinicians to intervene early in response to signs of deterioration or troublesome side effects. This reduces relapses and avoids the associated events that are hugely costly in human and economic terms; hospital admissions, absence from work, suicide, violence, breakdown of social networks and relationships, and so on. Data collected in “real-time” is not subject to the biases of how the patient is feeling at the time of the three monthly clinic visits when the clinician asks, “How have you been since I last saw you?” Rich and detailed information can be collected longitudinally that would be impossible to obtain retrospectively, and it can be automatically plotted, analyzed, and summarized to support decision making. Technologies that empower patients improve engagement. A patient caseload can be triaged to prioritize appointments according to the “live” clinical need, facilitating population-based care.
All this is based on talking and answering questions. No labs, no physical exam. So, all you innovative behavioral healthcare professionals out there, prepare to go to the ball. We may even marry the prince.
Janet Munro, MBBS, MPhil, MRCPsych is co-founder and chief executive officer of Optimal Medicine, and international company commercializing software to improve the care and outcomes of individuals with behavioral health disorders. She can be contacted at [email protected].