4 Ways to Improve Mental Health Through Digital Health

Oct 21, 2019 | Digital Innovation

Mental health disorders are the most common diseases of childhood. Of 74.5 million children in the United States, an estimated 17.1 million have or have had a psychiatric disorder, more than the number of children with cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined. While these statistics are alarming, scalable digital health solutions can improve mental health screening, diagnosis, and treatment.

Mental disorders among children are described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as, “serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions, causing distress and problems getting through the day.” Examples include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, behavior disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorders, etc.

Despite the high prevalence of childhood mental health disorders, not a single state in the country maintains an adequate supply of child psychiatrists. In addition, 43 states have a “severe shortage” of child psychiatrists.

Not surprisingly, with a shortage of pediatric psychiatrists, many children and families who need these specialty services do not receive them. In 2012, the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) estimated that only 15% to 25% of children with psychiatric disorders received specialty care, and roughly 75% of children with mental health disorders were seen by their pediatric primary care physician.

Digital health offers a multitude of ways to make combating the illness easier and more successful. Below, we highlight four ways to improve mental health through digital health.

1. Increased access to care

Over 115 million people in the United States live in designated Health Professional Shortage Areas. These are areas in which the ratio of mental health professionals to residents is smaller than 1 per 30,000 people. It’s no better for pediatric patients who face shortages both in their schools as well as in their communities.

Digital health solutions help health systems fill gaps in supply by broadening patient access points and their geographic/digital footprint. By increasing access to care, patients can still seek treatment, no matter where they live.

2. Early identification: screening and diagnosis

Another problem associated with the shortage of behavioral health physicians? The likelihood of early identification of a mental health problem lowers. Half of all lifetime mental illnesses occur before the age 14 and 75% develop a mental disorder by age 24. Thus, early screening proves especially important for teens and young adults. Intervention can prevent significant mental health problems from developing.

Digital health technology increases access and prioritization, casting a wider net than traditional screening and diagnoses methods. Such an approach helps patients who lack access to transportation, feel too sick to leave their home, or who don’t live near a provider. Without the drive and waiting in the waiting room, it also saves the patient time.

3. Outcomes tracking

A measurement-based care approach is just as important for common mental health conditions as for chronic mental health conditions. Tracking outcomes of mental health interventions is paramount to managing a patient’s mental health. Examples of outcomes include medication and care plan adherence and psychological assessments.

Practices should track and monitor patients through treatment to identify patients who are not reaching treatment goals. Digital tools make it clear whether a patient is meeting their treatment goals or not. Compared to pen and paper, doctors can use digital health technology to view patient trends. This can help them provide a more fine-tuned approach to a patient’s care. 

4. Collaborative care

Primary care pediatricians are often tasked with identifying and managing their patients’ behavioral health needs. For example, roughly 75% of children with mental health disorders were seen by their primary care physician in 2012. Thus, connecting one’s primary care and mental health physician makes sense for several reasons.

First, primary care providers are often the first line of defense when it comes to identifying mental illness. This is because they see the patient more often and usually establish a high level of confidence with the patient.

Second, conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other related disorders are often first treated by a primary care provider. If the patient needs further care or isn’t responding to treatment, then a mental health professional often gets involved. 

Third, studies show that when primary care providers collaborate with care managers and psychiatric consultants to manage patients’ mental health problems and monitor patient progress, care is more effective than “usual” care in treating mental health problems.

When a digital health platform coordinates primary care with behavioral health and other social services, primary care providers, care managers, and mental health specialists can better facilitate care. Therefore, patients are treated more closely and in-line with their individualized needs and capabilities via a team-based model.

Wrap-up

Scalable digital health resources offer much promise for identifying and effectively treating children’s behavioral health concerns.

Digital tools also allow parents, health professionals, and educators to better guide children towards success. In particular, digital health tools:

  1. Increase access to quality care;
  2. Facilitate early screening and diagnosis;
  3. Facilitate monitoring and management; and
  4. Improve care coordination via a team-based model.

To learn more about improving pediatric health outcomes through digital health engagement strategies, click here.