As of late, digital solutions have come to fruition to tackle the many challenges that inflict in-person mental health solutions. From video games designed to tackle anxiety, to ones that help improve attention amongst ADHD sufferers, to apps that support healthy neurocognitive functioning, digital mental health promises more fun, accessible, and personalized ways to care for your mental wellbeing. But what value do these solutions provide to mental health? Let’s take stock of the current challenges relating to mental health treatment and explore the promise of digital solutions in tackling these challenges.
The past year has been rough in many ways, many of us have had to cope with isolation, stress, grief and so much more. The uncertainty of the pandemic has come with its own challenges. Among the positive conversations amplified by the pandemic, is the urgency of dispelling stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness. Stigma aside, there remains the problem of accessibility. Were we to normalize mental health challenges and illnesses, access to mental health services would still be limited to a privileged few. Mental health services often require you to spend a significant amount out of pocket, and for many, this is a prohibitive barrier, especially for marginalized communities.
The twin problems of stigmas shrouding our perceptions of mental health, and the prohibitively high costs, mean that many will not gain access to the mental health help they need. 1 in 4 Americans reported an unmet need for treatment. What’s more, of youth struggling with depression, 60% received no treatment.
In the event where we can transcend the stigma and access issues, there remains the problem of accuracy. Mental health misdiagnosis is alarmingly prevalent. Depression and Bipolar disorder are highly represented amongst frequently misdiagnosed mental health conditions. A study conducted by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that 38.4% of those diagnosed with depression actually had the condition (in a sample of 5,639). Meanwhile, bipolar disorder is most commonly misdiagnosed as a major depressive disorder, according to several studies.
Misdiagnoses are costly, even devastating to a person’s mental wellbeing. They can mean receiving the wrong treatment, and it can be disorienting when treatment fails to help. An incorrect diagnosis can result in patients taking the wrong medication, the riskiness of which can’t be understated. Taking anti-depressants without taking the appropriate medications for bipolar disorder, for instance, raises the risk of suicide amongst those with bipolar disorder. But what may be even more dispiriting is that a misdiagnosis prevents the person from tackling their actual condition, potentially allowing it to worsen.
Can tech offer us a path forward?
These problems are in part due to another major challenge for mental healthcare as it stands, is one that plagues many other scientific disciplines, the ‘reproducibility crisis’, or the inability to replicate an experiment and produce the same scientific results. Digital interventions offer a potential solution to such difficulties, with them, the exact same intervention (be it a video game or an otherwise immersive experience) can be applied to various people, allowing for a more accurate determination of the impact of such interventions.
Technology can thankfully help solve many of these problems. In terms of accessibility, smartphones have become increasingly accessible to most of us, even those of us in more remote areas of the world. Mental health solutions that necessitate nothing, but a cellphone and an internet connection enable access to mental health services for a greater part of the population. Rather than having to take two buses and pay an exorbitant amount out of pocket for in-person mental health services, you can access such services from the comfort of your phone. The world is already embracing the plethora of digital resources created for mental health. And the solutions are endless.
Neuroscape, a research lab at the University of California at San Francisco is one of the leading proponents of digital medical solutions. Neuroscape creates video games targeting sufferers of Alzheimer’s, depression, and even Multiple Sclerosis, and providing them with personalized solutions. Companies such as Click Therapeutics, design software to tackle patient’s unmet needs, software backed by the company’s own clinical trials. Among their digital medicines, is Clickotine, a digital smoking-cessation program, backed by a controlled clinical trial.
Digital health is transforming mental health care, by paving the way for personalization. Digital solutions such as Neuroscape’s are personalized to your individual needs and your rate of progress, something that is difficult to do without digital solutions. Today, many digital mental health solutions are designed in what Neuroscape CEO Adam Gazzaley calls “closed-loop systems”, where the intervention (be it a video game or an immersive VR experience) adapts to your performance as you play along. Things such as your accuracy, your speed of performance, and other factors are consistently measured and used to inform the intervention itself, such that what you end up with is a personalized experience tailored to your specific challenges and attributes.
Alternova and “digital experiences-as-medicine”
One company actively working to bring about this adjacent possible world of personalized mental health is Alternova. A software development company with “the purpose to make healthcare more accessible, scalable and fun for patients around the world through digital experiences as medicine.” Alternova was founded by an enthusiastic combination of gamers, developers, and self-proclaimed data geeks, combining their expertise to solve a meaningful problem for humanity.
We asked Alternova’s COO, Maria Mesa, what motivates Alternova’s work:
“We believe that interactive and immersive technology has the power to revolutionize medical therapies and diagnosis. By decreasing the cost of access, allowing precise data-driven diagnostics, and delivering engaging and scalable experiences to make patients´ lives easier and smoother through their healthcare journey. Since 2016, we have been developing unique interactive apps and platforms that gather data and provide life-changing insights and outcomes for clinical research and care.”
If you’re interested in entering the digital health field yourself, you might be wondering just how Alternova does this. Well for starters Alternova specializes in the development of highly interactive experiences to capture health data. The interactive experiences Alternova creates include video games, VR, interactive apps, and platforms to gather clinical data (clinical trial platforms, patient monitoring platforms, etc).
Today, Alternova is developing multiple apps, games, and platforms for institutions such as Stanford, MIT, Takeda, Neuroscape, and multiple digital health startups. They are the technology team that brings to life digital therapeutics, educational apps, patient monitoring platforms, clinical trial platforms, and data collection platforms for multiple actors that are revolutionizing the healthcare industry.
Alternova’s differentiator, compared to healthcare IT traditional companies, is their focus on video game mechanics to generate engagement. Alternova’s founders come from a video game background, which allows the company to have engagement as the basis and pillar of every app and platform they build. Alternova has the purpose to make the healthcare journey fun for everyone involved, starting with patients. The company also develops the needed infrastructure necessary for health products to be secure (compliant) and scalable, and they have a great team of data scientists that can make sense of the data that the apps they build collect. Mental health data is sensitive data and must be handled with the utmost care and that is why Alternova has developed the expertise to build software products that guarantee compliance. In summary, they build a great variety of applications and platforms for fun healthcare.
As someone on the forefront of the digital health revolution, ushering in new realities, we asked Alternova’s COO, Maria Clara Mesa, where she sees the digital mental health revolution taking us:
“I see the startup ecosystem in digital health and transformative technology starting to deeply influence and disrupt the market. I see that technology is reaching the point where we can have data in our phones with the potential (if used correctly) to provide us with an incredible level of insight and self-knowledge that can help us improve the quality of our lives. We will have the ability to ‘quantify’ ourselves and have data to understand how we work (emergence to technology to enhance us, instead of tearing us down). We will have the capacity to have accurate data to be empowered about our health.”
The pandemic has nudged us toward that digital reality in some respect. Since the lockdown mandates began, we have begun to explore alternatives to the in-person therapy model, with audio, text, and video-based therapy quickly becoming the norm. As Maria tells us:
“with Covid, adoption of digital therapeutics and digital health tools is exploding because the need is evident. And, in mental health in particular there is less stigma on openly discussing challenges, as something all of us complex humans face.”
Thankfully, tech is providing us with new solutions for personalized and accessible services to allow ourselves to function at our fullest, Maria is optimistic about the promise of tech:
“I think tech will enable disruptive business models that will allow for underserved communities to be positively impacted and sustainable purpose-driven businesses to emerge. It will start being even more attractive for patients, entrepreneurs, and investors and generate more impact-driven innovation. I see the start of a virtuous cycle.”
As Maria points out, digital therapeutics have the power to democratize access to mental health care, beyond access, the potential for positive impact is endless.