When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, all health care activities needed to be quickly digitized to reach the masses. UnitedHealth Group reports that telehealth visits among its members grew from 1.2 million in 2019 to almost 34 million in 2020.
“As far back as I can remember, this is probably one of the most dramatic changes in the practice of medicine, definitely over a generation,” said Margaret-Mary Wilson, M.D., UnitedHealth Group’s chief medical officer.
This move to virtual visits has been hyper-accelerated across many health care disciplines but especially so in mental health care. Venture capitalists and online application developers are cashing in on the growing demand for mobile phone-based therapy delivery. The market for mental health-focused applications is expected to exceed $3.3 billion by 2027 and recent data suggest as many as 30,000 mental health applications exist in today’s market.
However, mental health applications are loosely regulated, especially around data and privacy. Imagine logging in to a therapy session and having your session information automatically sent to social media companies. That is insane, right? Scarily enough, that is happening in some existing platforms. A recent study posted by BJM found that 19 of the 24 most popular medicine-related applications shared user data to third and potentially fourth parties, including medical conditions and even whether a user is a smoker or pregnant.
And believe it or not, there is an even bigger issue at hand. The number of mental health apps vetted by scientific or peer-reviewed research is severely lacking. In a recent study by Nature Digital Magazine, researchers found that 64% of mental health applications claimed efficacy, although only 14% included any scientific evidence. With 30,000+ applications on the market, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish what is legitimate and what’s not.
Clearly, selecting a safe, effective application isn’t an easy process. Here are three resources I strongly recommend using before adopting any non-integrated mental health care model.
- PsyberGuide – “One Mind PsyberGuide is a non-profit project that aims to help people use technology to live a mentally healthier life.” PsyberGuide reviews application credibility, user experience, and transparency of privacy practices with a scientific approach that will assist organizations in vetting potential app-based solutions. Visit the website: https://onemindpsyberguide.org/
- MindApps – Offers information on hundreds of applications including data privacy standards. Informational websites like PsyberGuide and MindApps are extremely important as developers in the mental health app space often run their own studies, which is a massive conflict of interest. Visit the website: https://mindapps.org/
- Practicing Mental Health Professional – I strongly suggest including a mental health professional in vetting situations before adopting any type of care solution. At the very least, a practicing professional can review an app and make sure its practices are consistent with current evidence-based treatments.
With comprehensive research and guidance, it is possible to find a mental health app with the right combination of data security and effectiveness. Just beware of the apps that are skirting the lines of privacy and scientific validity. Good luck!