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Could Digital Health Save The Mental Health Epidemic?

Technology is both encouraging mental health sufferers to get help and making it easy for them to seek immediate treatment without paying for the privilege - all via a channel that fits into their modern, digitalised lives.
PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou via Getty Images

By Dr. Frederic Llordachs, co-founder of Doctoralia, a brand of DocPlanner,

the leading global online healthcare platform connecting doctors with patients.

Mental health problems are the great epidemic of the 21st century for developed countries. They affect approximately one in six adults each year, but they are often neither recognised nor adequately treated. The incidence and prevalence of these problems increases during periods of economic crisis, which is precisely when governments and other funding agencies are looking to reduce spending rather than increase it.

The inequality gradient operates in such a way that people and disadvantaged communities are at greater risk of mental illness, and the generalised stigma around mental illness and associated discrimination also worsens during recessions.

The UK is no exception: suicide remains one of the biggest killers, yet nearly one in four young people seeking professional treatment for mental health are being turned away by UK medical services, according to a new report from the Education Policy Institute's Independent Mental Health Commission. Meanwhile, for those lucky enough to be referred by the GP to a mental health specialist, they have to cope with wait times of up to 18 weeks for an appointment.

Around the world, we continue to see increased numbers of online marketplaces being used to access healthcare services. Well-established players like ZocDoc in the US (with a $1.8 billion dollar valuation), or DocPlanner in continental Europe and Latin America (expected to become the next European unicorn in the digital health arena), are helping patients to book an appointment with private specialists with almost immediate availability - a good example of how to offer a more agile service with the same resources.

Healthcare is ripe for technological disruption

Marketplaces connecting doctors and patients are just the beginning. The market for digital health is huge, encompassing tools and solutions that cater to just about every possible need. Some examples of these are the increasing trend in video consultations, especially in mental health, allowing a patient to arrange a virtual meeting with a specialist without having to leave the comfort of his or her own home, safe from inquisitive looks. Telemedicine is also being used in the public healthcare system. For example, Canada has adopted telemedicine strategies in order to address some of the issues currently facing the mental healthcare system, such as the shortage of psychiatrists and lack of services available in rural areas.

New, free-to-use apps on the market that offer patients the chance to tackle mental health issues on their own are rapidly growing in popularity. The best place to find an app that is tailored to your needs is myhealthapps, a British endeavour managed by PatientView UK, that is classifying and providing details of health apps recommended by patient groups and tested by professionals. They currently have 93 apps included in their mental health section, demonstrating just how popular these apps have become in the UK.

And the future is looking bright. Watson's IBM recently introduced an online service for developers of Tone Analyzer to detect various tones and emotions conveyed by users during a conversation with a bot. This opens a door to a future where bots and artificial intelligence have the potential to detect changes in your mood and give you priority in the access to mental health services.

Innovation and disruption has never been more important than it is today in the healthcare space. With the continued shortfall in government funding and difficulty in recruiting healthcare specialists, it doesn't look as though UK wait times for doctors will get shorter any time soon. With patients increasingly losing their patience, the demand for digital solutions continues to grow and the reasons are clear. Technology is both encouraging mental health sufferers to get help and making it easy for them to seek immediate treatment without paying for the privilege - all via a channel that fits into their modern, digitalised lives.

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