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HEALTH| 20.09.2023

Using technology to assist in mental health treatment

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Mental health problems are currently one of society’s major concerns, and only now are we beginning to acknowledge the importance of the scale of them. As awareness has increased, new therapies and approaches have also emerged. One of these is the use of digitalization and technology, which, with professional support, can be a valuable tool and improve aspects such as accessibility or the effectiveness of certain treatments.

Telemedicine is already a reality in health care, although its application rate and potential, for the moment, are much greater in certain fields. Psychiatry and psychology are among the fields that have benefited most, along with others such as radiology and dermatology, both of which rely heavily on diagnostic imaging. In psychiatry and psychology, digitalization has broad potential and is making inroads in appointments, treatments, and research.

“We use technology in our mental health work to conduct research in the early detection of disorders, improve the personalization of interventions, and offer support to a larger percentage of the population,” says Alma Fernández, Medical Director of Savia, MAPFRE’s telemedicine platform.

Virtual reality and video appointments for phobias

There are specific disorders that can benefit a lot from therapies in the form of video appointments. This is particularly true for cases of social phobias and agoraphobia issues, because by providing a setting in which they feel more secure, they make it easier for the patient to communicate with the psychotherapist more openly. And in general, with communication becoming more and more screen-based, especially among younger people, some may find that they express themselves more comfortably in online sessions.

In addition, the last two decades have witnessed the emergence of virtual reality as a useful tool for treatment and research in mental disorders, creating interactive environments “where people can repeatedly experience their problematic situations and learn, through evidence-based psychological treatments, how to overcome such problems,” says Savia’s medical director.

Virtual reality has made it possible to carry out treatments for specific phobias such as agoraphobia, altitude sickness, or fear of certain insects, for example. Thus, a patient with these disorders is exposed to their fear within a simulated scenario, which can be very useful given that it is immersive and realistic, while at the same time being a safe and controlled environment. Alma Fernández believes that “the results could improve in the future, given technology’s capacity of to create new realities.”

Applications of technology in mental health also include wearable devices, which capture information on the interactions and behavior of an individual in order to quantify their responses or development within a specific condition, such as their social relationships or daily habits.

In recent years, a large number of mental health-related apps have emerged. This category encompasses many applications, ranging from those that simply help maintain healthier routines to others that are more oriented to psychotherapies. These apps can be useful, but, as far as treatments are concerned, experts warn that it is crucial for them to be supported by professionals. Scientific endorsement and the protection of user privacy are also pending issues for this newly emerging technology.

Increased access to professional help

Mental health remains stigmatized and is often considered taboo. This holds many people back from seeking traditional face-to-face therapy or counseling, and this is exactly one of online psychotherapy’s major advantages. Moreover, given the increase in disorders that occurred during the pandemic – especially anxiety and depression, which were the most common – the scarcity of human resources for mental health and the difficulties of access for many people are increasingly evident. And here, technology can be a great enabler, says Alma Fernandez.

 “It is very important to work on the accessibility of these tools because there are still many barriers. Experts say that technology should be created in order to improve our lives without it. And there are still many barriers to the use of digital medical services. That is why we have to innovate by listening to those who are going to use the technology, namely health care professionals and patients, by offering personalized services and using our capabilities to help people to adopt healthier lifestyle habits,” says Savia’s medical director.

Increased accessibility will lead to more availability of specialists in various fields. There are cases that may require, for example, an expert in adolescent eating disorders, but who may happen to be based in a city hundreds of miles away from the patient. Platforms such as Savia allow segmentation by criteria, such as the patient’s age, the disorder they suffer from, or the type of therapy, and the most appropriate specialist can be accessed from anywhere. Removing limitations to a specific geographic area broadens the portfolio of professionals, providing the patient with access to a greater number of them and those that are more specialized, which facilitates more personalized care.

Another major barrier to mental health care is the cost. To provide good results, a treatment usually requires periodic sessions over a certain period of time, so cost can become an obstacle to such follow-up. Online appointments may offer, depending on the case, lower prices without affecting the nature and effectiveness of the therapy. However, although the emergence of a wider range of new digital models makes solutions more affordable, it is still essential for them to be professional solutions.