A hallmark of quality psychiatric care is finding creative ways to help patients who do not respond as expected to traditional medications and treatments. To that end, psychiatrists don’t always have to do everything just as they learned in medical school. There are alternatives. A case in point is using a patient’ smartphone to help improve psychiatric care.
There is rising concern within the psychiatric community that excessive phone use among teenagers can lead to clinical depression. At the very least, studies have shown that there is a link between the two. But what if a teenager’s smartphone could give his or her psychiatrist a better understanding of what is going on in that patient’s head?
That very question has sparked a small number of medical app developers to look at creating new tools to improve psychiatric care by tracking how people use their phones. Some are calling it ‘smartphone psychiatry’. Regardless of any specific moniker, the idea is quite fascinating and intriguing.
The first task in developing smartphone apps to improve psychiatric care is to develop tools that actually track how a patient is using his or her phone. Consider a teenager who spends hour after hour scrolling through Facebook, looking at pictures on SnapChat, watching YouTube videos, and sending and receiving text messages.
Research suggests that tracking things like word choices and typing speed can indicate a person’s mental and emotional state at any given time. According to a story that appeared in the Morning Journal (Lisbon, OH) there may be as many as 1,000 biomarkers of mental and emotional health that could be tracked using a smartphone app.
App developers are looking for ways to combine tracked data with artificial intelligence for the purposes of predicting when patients may experience episodes of depression or self-harm. Imagine the implications if they succeed in reaching their goals.
Having access to smartphone apps capable of predicting a mental health crisis opens the door to treating psychiatric patients in a whole new way. It opens the door to discovering a ton of information that cannot be easily learned during an office visit. Doctors would have access to more information that could aid in diagnosis, prognosis, and developing treatment plans.
Even more exciting is the realization that the usefulness of a psychiatric smartphone app would not be limited to a patient’s primary psychiatrist. The data would be useful to any other psychiatrist treating a patient, including locums. This is obviously a big plus.
Locum psychiatrists often find themselves behind in the early days of a new assignment because they do not have access to all the information that they need to truly figure out what is going on. Give those same clinicians access to smartphone data and it is a whole new ballgame.
We are probably still a few years away from comprehensive smartphone apps that improve psychiatric care. But what is happening now is a good start. If researchers and app developers do succeed in creating the kinds of apps they envision, they will be able to take credit for taking something commonly seen as bad for psychiatric patients and turning it into something good.
Excessive smartphone use can be problematic for psychiatric patients. But perhaps it can also be a good thing too. Perhaps psychiatrists will be instructing their patients to download and install new apps in the future, apps that combine big data with artificial intelligence to help doctors better understand what is going on in their patients’ minds.