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Treating the wide range of mental health conditions and substance use disorders requires unique training and significant resources for clinicians and other healthcare professionals, especially in areas where there aren’t enough care providers to meet behavioral health needs. To support these professionals, many innovations today are aimed at developing in-home tools powered by digital technology. This evolving landscape can help address both access to care and gaps in care through virtual behavioral health resources and apps.

Imagine a person with bipolar disorder, for instance, who is between appointments with their care provider and is experiencing an intensification of symptoms. If that person also wore a biometric sensor that allowed for remote patient monitoring, someone on their care team could see that their sleep had been disrupted for several days and could proactively reach out. Without remote reporting capabilities and physical metadata, the person might have to wait until their next in-office appointment, by which time their symptoms might have been further exacerbated.

“One of the challenges with behavioral health is that you have a visit with your practitioner and then you have another one a week later, a month later, or two months later, and there’s a lot of white space in between. And that’s where life occurs,” said Dr. Gary Proctor, regional chief medical officer for Carelon Behavioral Health. “Knowing what happens in that white space between appointments is very valuable information for that person’s care plan.”

Digital home healthcare tools are increasingly understood as powerful ways to support behavioral health care. The first area in which they unlock potential is in increasing access to care. Two out of every five people in the United States. live in areas where there is a shortage of mental health professionals. In-home therapy services, telebehavioral health, and other virtual mental health solutions are a crucial bridge to groups of people who have been historically marginalized and who are experiencing mental health conditions or substance use disorder.

Digital tools can also address gaps in care. Asynchronous chat or messaging allows patients and care providers to communicate before and after appointments without requiring a live connection. It’s a form of remote therapy that can supplement scheduled care appointments, giving patients the ability to communicate about their care while they also juggle work, childcare, and other demands of daily life. A 2018 review of these technologies concluded that they improve access, address workforce shortages, and have good levels of use and acceptability in behavioral health systems.

Other examples of digital home healthcare tools include chatbots, user quizzes and exercises, videos, articles, and cognitive behavioral programs. These tools are considered adjacent to clinician care, whether in-person or virtual. They are best used in concert with the care of a professional provider: Digital interventions that are supported by care providers are more effective than unsupported ones, and treatment adherence is demonstrably better with the support of a care professional.

This type of technology, when used with privacy safeguards and with the consent of each patient, can offer valuable insights to care providers.

“With one of the cognitive assessment games we have designed, we can see how long a patient with schizophrenia spends on a screen, how quickly they tap numbers, and whether they stop and get stuck in the middle,” said Dr. John Torous, director of the Division of Digital Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in an interview with The Commonwealth Fund. Torous’s team has developed a digital platform called MindLAMP. People interact with the app through surveys and cognitive tests and can engage in activities that encourage mindfulness and self-reflection, such as guided meditations and journaling.

Carelon Behavioral Health partners with tech innovators in the mental health space to bring digital health tools to patients and communities that lack access to quality mental health services. For example, Buoy Health is an AI-powered care-navigation system that helps people identify their symptoms and find appropriate care providers in their area. Another is Talkspace, a remote therapy platform that leverages machine learning to match patients with therapists and assess the effectiveness and quality of care. Research shows that machine learning has the potential to reduce suicidal ideation and save lives.

These solutions aren’t for everyone — and care providers need to keep that in mind, Proctor said. Some people experience barriers to technological access, and certain populations may be more receptive to digital treatment tools than others. The innovations represent a shifting landscape; providers must stay focused on delivering holistic care while adjusting for a person’s health literacy as digital solutions evolve.

Carelon Behavioral Health is specifically focused on using these tools and others to prioritize:

  • Improving access to treatment, eliminating wait times, and streamlining care.
  • Measuring member satisfaction and symptom reduction.
  • Increasing patient choice, with a focus on clinical diversity and self-service options.
  • Expanding coverage of specialty care for adolescents.
  • Improving patient retention rates by expanding access, improving quality, and making care more affordable. 

“One of the challenges is to find out what really is effective,” Proctor said. “There’s a lot of technology out there, and a lot of interest in this space. It’s wide open, and a lot of companies and providers are putting out new and innovative things. But we really need to make sure that it’s not innovation for innovation’s sake. We are researching and investing in the tools that will improve health outcomes for people in the long run.”

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