Health IT, Devices & Diagnostics, Health Tech

Digital tech for mental care grows as way to help patients navigate health deserts

The need for mental health services continues to strain the ability of the healthcare system to respond. New technologies are helping to improve patient access to care, and a panel at the MedCity INVEST conference in Chicago discussed the challenges and opportunities for these services.

From left: Eugene Borukhovich, co-founder and COO, YourCoach Health; Naomi Allen, CEO and co-founder, Brightline; Ellen Herlacher, principal, LRVHealth; Neha Gupta, division chief of integrated behavioral health, department of psychiatry & behavioral sciences, Rush University Medical Center; and Jeff Weness, head of digital opportunities and business intelligence, Otsuka Pharmaceutical Companies.

Mental health services are lacking throughout the country, but there are certain pockets glaringly lacking in such resources. These “health deserts” existed well before the rise of Covid-19, but one of the bright spots of the pandemic was the spotlight shined on technologies that bring mental health services to more people in more places.

Telehealth was already an accepted practice, but for some children, it’s difficult for a child at home to find a place to have an open discussion, said Jeff Weness, head of digital opportunities and business intelligence at Otsuka Pharmaceutical Companies. He noted that new apps are gaining adoption as a way to enable children to engage in therapy from the quiet of their own rooms without the need for them to even speak out loud.

“The pandemic revealed some opportunities that hopefully will have lasting impact, positive impact,” Weness said.

Weness was among the speakers Wednesday on the “Halting the Mental Health Crisis” panel at the MedCity INVEST conference in Chicago. He was joined by Naomi Allen, CEO and co-founder of Brightline; Ellen Herlacher, principal at LRVHealth; and Dr. Neha Gupta, division chief of integrated behavioral health in the department of psychiatry & behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center. The session was moderated by Eugene Borukhovich, co-founder and chief operating officer of YourCoach Health.

Brightline, a startup that provides behavioral health services for children and families, is one of the companies offering new mental health digital solutions. Allen said that schools are tremendously lacking in the resources to address the mental health needs of students. Meanwhile, parents are reluctant to talk about mental health issues. If there is good news here, it’s that the youth are asking for more support, and they’re more open to talking about mental health, she said.

This week, Brightline closed a $105 million Series C round of funding, which it said would be used to further increase access to mental health care. In particular, the Palo Alto, California-based company said it would expand its services for teens and offer specialty programs that reach diverse groups of people, such as caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder and LBGTQ+ youth.

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The ability to reach overlooked groups is one of the characteristics that Herlacher looks for in companies. Her firm, LRVHealth, is an investor in SilverCloud Health, a Boston company that offers behavioral health programs that patients can access digitally. SilverCloud’s offerings are meant to add capacity amid a constrained supply of mental health professionals, and the company recently unveiled new digital mental health resources with a specific focus on family mental health.

A lot of mental healthcare can be done digitally, Herlacher said. The sector is still sorting out what parts of it will be permanent, which in turn will affect what’s reimbursable. But she added that digital technologies are important for alleviating the dearth of options in health deserts.

“Digital has to be on the table and I don’t think we’ve fully maximized the potential,” Herlacher said.

Gupta said that it is important to invest early in digital options for mental health, particularly because the downstream costs, especially for depression, are so high. Rush is working to be more proactive in addressing mental health needs by screening for it. Through the hospital’s collaborative care program, patients have the opportunity to receive primary care or mental health care, depending on need. Patients are screened through a health questionnaire and questions asked by clinic staff, Gupta said. If the responses suggest a mental health need, a behavioral health professional calls that patient within seven days to assess the need and connect the patient to the appropriate resources.

Herlacher said one feature she is looking for in new technologies is measurement-based care, meaning the ability to measure not only that the services are appropriate but also that the quality is high. Measurement is key because it show that a technology is achieving what it was designed to do. Weness said some of the technologies that Otsuka is looking at provide concrete measurements in mental health, showing how a patient is doing over time. That capability creates a story for reimbursement and also helps to demonstrate how engaged a user is with a digital treatment, he said.

Photo: Walter Lim, MedCity News