MedCity Influencers, Health Tech

Will new behavioral health solutions withstand the test of time?

The emergence of new approaches to the coordination and delivery of behavioral health services is long overdue. Evaluating their impact on some of the most complex and interconnected areas of medicine will require time and work.

The digitization of care prompted by the recent pandemic has only resulted in a heightened level of excitement and support for innovations in a field where advancement has been slow. As healthcare investors, we certainly welcome this – there is no shortage of challenges to solve. Over the past three years, there has been an influx of capital into companies seeking to improve the coordination and delivery of behavioral health care services, with $1.8 billion raised in 2020 alone. At the same time, we need to remain mindful of the hurdles that still lie ahead. We can explore this through three of the big trends in behavioral health today.

Unlocking data to advance predictive models
We have long known about the interconnectedness of behavioral and medical health, but behavioral health data has historically been collected and used in silos. Only recent changes to interoperability rules have started paving the way for a better approach. Though some obstacles still exist, interoperability offers practitioners an expanded library of data to design more timely and customized interventions. Health plans can start using these new feeds to enrich databases and support at-risk individuals, rather than relying on limited and incomplete claims data.

Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of talented companies eager to join in the quest for better behavioral health data. Quartet Health created a technology platform that integrates data sources to more precisely identify patients who might need help; Mindoula developed a data-driven approach to matching patients with the right treatment program; Neuroflow designed technology that allows practitioners to deliver and track psychometric test results; and Cambridge Cognition digitized neurocognitive tests. Other companies, such as AxialHealthcare, are expanding upon the data-driven approach and developing advanced analytics that feed into intervention and monitoring protocols.

These innovations are a significant improvement over the historical standard for managing and analyzing data. However, they also face a unique obligation to ensure data is used properly and interpreted correctly. The public is already wary about data privacy and concerned companies are using their personal information for monetary gain or inadvertently exposing it through data breaches. With the latter impacting nearly 162 million people in 2020, the public’s distrust is understandable. How can we be sure the data is used in an ethical and secure manner? Solutions with high, transparent, well-communicated security standards will differentiate themselves from the rest of the market.

Delivery of care solutions
Emerging solutions manage and coordinate care using a variety of approaches with options ranging from peer-support groups to modernized, sleek and technologically savvy brick-and-mortar clinics. Some companies have developed their own networks of behavioral health practitioners while others leverage existing health plans’ networks.

Medicine has become increasingly specialized and behavioral health is no exception. There are clusters of companies cropping up that provide point solutions, catering to specific groups of clients. WorkItHealth developed a digitized intensive outpatient program for substance use disorders; Equip created an at-home program for patients with eating disorders; and NOCD offers online therapy for people struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

These solutions address limitations around access to care. It’s not clear if these timely and relevant efforts will sufficiently impact supply-demand imbalances across regions and specialties. Digital solutions will need to prove their effectiveness in responsibly supporting and triaging cases before they can scale. Marketplace models and practice management tools also aim to correct supply-demand imbalances by streamlining the process of finding care and alleviating administrative pain points. Whether these solutions successfully free up supply or only provide more price segmentation in the industry remains to be determined. In particular, solutions that require consumers to pay out-of-pocket will only address needs in a small part of the market.

Technology integrated treatments
Digital therapeutics and solutions leveraging virtual reality are being developed across behavioral health to provide cost-effective, convenient and extremely scalable solutions. If proven effective in supplementing (or even supplanting) the current standard of care, they could completely shift the landscape of behavioral health treatments. Right now, it’s too early to tell where they will fit in the current treatment paradigm.

There are several promising advancements in this space, such as the now FDA-cleared companies Pear Therapeutics and Akili Interactive. The core challenge, however, is the unproven real-world effectiveness of these technologies. Due to variation in treatment responses and the delicate interplay with comorbidities, the technologies’ future hinges on proven results in methodologically sound, long-term outcome studies. Designing and implementing these studies successfully can be a daunting endeavor, and some solutions –have been forced to distance themselves from treatment claims and focus instead on marketing their solutions as “mental wellness” tools. This said, the overall outlook for the field is positive, and there is some well-deserved optimism about several digital therapeutics meeting clinical expectations and ushering a new wave of innovation to meet the high demand.

The emergence of new approaches to the coordination and delivery of behavioral health services is long overdue. New developments in interoperability, analytics, and digital engagement are encouraging signs in an industry that critically needs them. Evaluating their impact on some of the most complex and interconnected areas of medicine will require time and work. As with any part of the healthcare ecosystem, we must never forget there are human lives on the other side of our efforts.

Picture: Benjavisa, Getty Images

Laura Patterson is part of the Venture Capital team at Healthworx. Healthworx is the innovation and investment arm of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

This post appears through the MedCity Influencers program. Anyone can publish their perspective on business and innovation in healthcare on MedCity News through MedCity Influencers. Click here to find out how.