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Digital health a 'first responder' for behavioral health conditions

One in five adults in the United States suffer from mental illness, and many of them will consult their smartphones before they do a health professional. However, with digital health often acting as first responder, and many apps claiming they can help people who suffer from behavioral health conditions, it can be hard to find a quality app.

There are more than 160,000 apps in the health field as a whole, John Herman, M.D., associate chief of the department of psychiatry and chair of medical psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, said at the Connected Health Symposium in Boston last week.

“There is evidence that the most health apps are in the mental health and behavioral health space, because perhaps the barriers to entry are so low,” said John Torous, M.D., co-director of the digital psychiatry program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“It’s very easy to claim you offer emotional support,” Torous said. “We have a lot of people making a lot of stuff with good intentions, but [as] I said it’s a very messy, polluted landscape.”

Torous also works with the American Psychiatric Association, whose Smartphone App Evaluation Task Force is working to develop guidelines and standards for how to find a good app.

“If you type in depression in the iTunes Store, you get back a lot of garbage,” Torous, who is also editor in chief of JMIR Mental Health, said. “There’s good evidence that the star system works well on Amazon, but a five star app for depression, schizophrenia, bipolar anxiety, correlates nothing with its quality.”

Herman said while the current app landscape is like the Wild West or Gold Rush, “there is gold there, and the market will settle out whether in our lifetimes, or by next year.”

One weakness that behavioral health app developers will have to address is making sure the data collected by an app can be disseminated to a user’s physician. While there are different standards being developed to help apps integrate with electronic health records, there is still a gap.

“If your data is being siloed in an individual app or platform, and it’s not getting back to your primary care team or there’s no one kind of coordinating it, that actually may be very detrimental,” Torous said.