Evolving Potential of Mobile Psychiatry: Current Barriers and Future Solutions

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By John Torous, MD and John A. Fromson, MD

9/22/15

Has it happened to you yet? A patient brings in a smartphone and asks you to review data collected by an app. Another patient asks if you recommend an app to help monitor mood. A different patient asks if you think a certain app for cognitive behavioral therapy may be effective. Understanding some of the fundamental opportunities and challenges of psychiatry apps provides a foundation for addressing their role in clinical care.

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From fitness trackers that document patient activity levels to smartphone apps that promise real-time symptom updates, new sensors and apps are constantly being developed for psychiatry. It is estimated that there are currently more than 400,000 health care–related apps with thousands specific to psychiatry.1 National organizations, such as the British National Health Service, have begun to offer official recommendations for selecting psychiatry-related apps. Likewise, professional organizations (eg, the American Psychological Association) have issued practice updates to reflect the growing importance of this technology. With large technology companies (eg, Apple, IBM) entering this market, the pace of new offerings is likely to increase.2 While the rate of new app launches is a benchmark of technical progress, their short- and long-term efficacy, cost, and safety—and a host of privacy and legal issues—have yet to be determined.

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Interest in mobile mental health has increased as psychiatric patients increasingly own and use smartphones and technology. Research suggests that patients not only own smartphones, but they are also amenable to using them for their clinical care.3,4 While many patients, especially those who are older, may not yet own a smartphone, ownership is projected to continue to increase rapidly over the next several years. This increased interest is not unique to psychiatry—there has also been a proliferation of apps for diabetes, pain management, rheumatology, ophthalmology, and many other fields.5-8 Each field is working to better understand the role of smartphone technology in clinical care—and psychiatry is no exception.

 

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