A new study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry collected and analyzed the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs held by a range of mental health professionals regarding the integration of digital health technologies into mental health care. This important study was aimed at contributing to the conversation around why digital health technologies are having such difficulty penetrating into routine clinical practice, despite their proven benefits.
Results found that the psychologists, therapists, care coordinators, and related mental health staff members who participated in the study overwhelmingly identified digital health tools as helpful additions to clinical practice, both for clients and clinicians. For clients, the verbalized benefits of digital health tools included their ability to extend the reach of services, empower clients to take charge of their treatment through data visibility, and play a role in de-stigmatizing mental health conditions, among others.
Clinician benefits that were identified included their potential for capturing a more ecologically valid assessment of symptoms and their ability to assign and track shared goals that clients can work toward. Moreover, mental health providers felt as though digital health tools hold the potential to provide clients with more choice over how they want to participate in their treatment, which may lead to positive outcomes by increasing client engagement in treatment services.
So why aren't digital health technologies being used more frequently?
Several themes also arose that shed light on the typical concerns held by many mental health professionals regarding the use of digital health tools in their practice. These included concerns related to the time, resources, and money that is often required to integrate these tools into practice, issues related to data security and privacy, and the potential negative consequences of increased digital health usage on an individual’s progress in treatment, such as the potential for clients to avoid social interaction and personal connection with their therapist when receiving aspects of their care online. Some mental health professionals even expressed anxiety around technology taking over aspects of their job and surpassing their clinical skills in certain areas, thus preventing them from recommending digital health approaches to health care.
While the threat of technology taking over our job as therapists may be a ways away, these concerns are nonetheless completely valid and likely represent beliefs held by a range of professionals well beyond those who participated in this study. For example, considering my clinical role at Blueprint, it would not be unreasonable to assume that my own personal beliefs regarding the use of digital health tools in routine clinical practice are overwhelmingly favorable. In reality, I’m more of a skeptic then most would think, erring on the side of supporting technologies only if they enhance the therapeutic relationship in a meaningful way and provide robust and consistent support for their validity. In other words, I’m not a “technology is going to save us all” kind of guy when it comes to using digital health tools in my own clinical practice.
Personal opinions aside, the controversy around the utility of technology in mental health care never ceases to amaze me. Just as the results of this study highlight, my own interactions with a wide range of mental health professionals have led me to expect a diversity of attitudes toward the subject of digital health tools—some enthusiastically positive, others passionately negative, with the majority falling somewhere in the middle.
As a clinical community, what's important is not how well we can defend one side or the other, but how well we can come together and respond to this controversy in an adaptive way that moves us toward a better quality of care for the individuals that we work with.
Russell DuBois, Ph.D.
Bucci S, Berry N, Morris R, Berry K, Haddock G, Lewis S and Edge D (2019) “They Are Not Hard-to-Reach Clients. We Have Just Got Hard-to-Reach Services.” Staff Views of Digital Health Tools in Specialist Mental Health Services.. Front. Psychiatry 10:344. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00344