3 Steps to Take When Assessing Virtual Mental Health

3 Steps to Take When Assessing Virtual Mental Health. A white female youth suffering from mental health issues sits on the steps of a brownstone and writes HELP on the bottom stair in chalk.

Earlier this month, the digital therapeutics company Limbix launched a partnership with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) to evaluate a virtual adolescent treatment known as SparkRx.

Through a study with CHLA, Limbix plans to gather information on SparkRx, which provides an adjunct treatment intervention for depression patients aged 13 to 22. The self-guided intervention is based on cognitive behavioral therapy. For its part, Limbix focuses on providing effective and accessible mental health services to younger patients.

Youths Drive Mental Health Spending Surge

The CHLA study is the latest of many efforts to assess the value and limitations among the rapidly rising number of apps and telehealth offerings designed to serve the needs of patients accessing mental health services, particularly the young.

This latter sector — patients younger than 25 — account for a slow but steady rise in mental health and substance-use spending, according to a recent Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) report. EBRI’s seven-year survey of employer-sponsored health plans found that:

  • Spending on mental health and substance-use problems rose from 6.8% of total health costs in 2013 to 8.2% in 2020.
  • While they represent 36% of the population, people younger than 25 accounted for 42% of spending on mental health and substance-use treatment in 2020.
  • People younger than 18 are emerging as the biggest mental health consumers.

Virtual Platforms Aim to Close the Care Gap

The use of virtual platforms — from telehealth to apps — to treat behavioral health and substance-use disorders can address some challenges in the delivery process. For instance, research has shown that telehealth can improve access to care and outcomes, reduce health disparities and stigma, and ease workforce shortages.

Indeed, Headspace Health’s recent acquisition of Shine, an app committed to serving those in marginalized communities, will help Headspace advance its diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging efforts. For these and other reasons, there has been significant growth in the development and release of virtual platforms.

Clinically appropriate, evidenced-based virtual treatment options provide hope in improving access to care for all ages. This couldn’t be more important for American youth who need these services. The AHA is advocating for children through the Sound the Alarm for Kids initiative, a partnership to raise awareness of the current national emergency in youths’ mental health.

For instance, there are now between 8,000 and 9,000 child and adolescent psychiatrists treating children and teens in the U.S. That’s 10 child psychiatrists per 100,000 kids. Estimates show, however, that we need 47 psychiatrists per 100,000 children and teens. And findings from a study published in late 2019 by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that despite overall growth in the number of child psychiatrists between 2007 and 2016, there “remains a dearth” of these practitioners, particularly in lower-income areas.

3 Steps to Selecting Mental Health Apps

The expansion of virtual platforms for mental and behavioral health care is welcome, but with such rapid growth comes the challenge of determining which platforms or programs are evidence-based. Hospital and health system leaders must determine which ones are clinically appropriate for specific populations and patients.

Here are ways provider organizations can help shape the development and use of mental health apps and platforms.

1 | Proceed with caution.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) urges health care leaders to use caution when using apps. The association’s App Advisor offers resources to help clinicians and their patients make informed decisions on apps and provides guidance on ways apps can be dangerous or cause harm.

2 | Make your voice heard.

The APA has an app-evaluation model that provides a systematic way to determine whether to use a mental health app in clinical practice. Users provide input through app evaluations. The point is not to rate apps or grade them but to provide examples of how different evaluators experience the product.

3 | Support employees in their journey.

In 2020, Kaiser Permanente launched a resource to help other provider organizations as they select apps for their corporate wellness programs. The resource offers tips for how to narrow your searches, weighing the pros and cons of self-guided vs. coaching apps and more.

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