Can digital mental health solutions live up to the growing expectations?

There is a growing excitement and enthusiasm among the mHealth solutions to enter into digital mental health market and broaden their addressable target market. This hype has become more visible since the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, most of the digital mental health solutions lack differentiating services to live up to the expectations. Therefore, solution providers must improve their offerings, and this article highlights five key strategies along which the digital mental health solutions can improve their services to deliver on their promise.

There are already hundreds of scientific articles and surveys articulating the negative impact of Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) on the mental health of people. However, even before the COVID-19 outbreak, there had been an increasing unmet need for treatment of mental health illnesses. This has consequently awakened the attention and put the digital mental health solutions and service offerings under the spotlight.

There are four indicators of the hype around digital mental health solutions.

  1. Digital therapeutics (DTx) companies are adding mental health services into their portfolios. The run for digital mental health solutions is on. Investors and companies like Livongo (acquired MyStrength) and Omada (acquired Lantern) expanded services into mental health by acquisitions.
  2. Investments for digital mental health solutions are rising. Investors opened up their wallets for digital mental health solutions as well. The guided meditation app Headspace and psychiatric care app Mindstrong received $93 million and $100 million respectively in the mids of 2020. Modern Health, mental health benefits platform for employers, received $74 million investment in Q1 2021 and reached to total $170 million total investment.
  3. Supply of digital mental health solutions is reaching to a mass market status. While the investments on mobile mental health solutions have been rising, the number of solutions available in the market were rising too. There are thousands of mental health solutions with services ranging from mindfulness and meditation courses to therapies for severe depression treatment. Some mental health solutions cover low severity patients by offering meditation sessions, whereas some cover high severity mental health patients with more sophisticated service offerings. Others just provide self-management tools of mood tracking and patient education. This offers various options to solution providers to enter into the market.
  4. Digital mental health apps are one of the first apps to be reimbursed. The rising awareness for mental health applications among the governmental institutions in many of the countries like Germany and the UK is also a crucial reason behind the hype around mental health solutions. Today, 5 out of 11 digital health applications that can be reimbursed by statutory health insurance in Germany are mental health solutions. The same progress is happening in the NHS apps library in the UK, where 22 out of 91 mHealth apps that can be prescribed are mental health apps. This shows a trend in which digital mental health solutions are gaining recognition more and more and able to enter into traditional healthcare delivery systems.

In spite of the increasing attention over time on the digital mental health solutions, these solutions have not yet showed any meaningful change in their services. Almost all of the solutions today include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) method which focuses on changing the behaviour of patients in coping with their problems and teaching the ways to regulate their emotional state. While keeping the CBT method at the core, these solutions offer generic services mostly for low to mild depression and anxiety patients via fixed hourlong reading material, exercises, or video clips. This does not resonate with the increasing attention and expectations from these solutions. A meaningful change would come by innovation, integration into healthcare systems and increasing the quality for severe mental illnesses.

5 strategies that mental health solutions must follow to live up to the expectations

There is still a long road to go for the digital mental health solutions and here are five potential success strategies for digital mental health solution providers to improve their solutions.

  1. Offering services for healthcare providers: Integration into the healthcare systems is one of the most important indicators of maturity of digital solutions. And to achieve this, digital solutions have to offer services for doctors so that they would prescribe or advice the usage of digital mental health applications by the patients. This could be done via offering exportable patient reports for third party therapists, integrating into EMRs as a decision support tool or offering telemedicine services for healthcare providers like Minddistrict.
  2. Capturing the severe mental health patient population: Today most of the digital mental health solutions offer services for low or mild severity patients with AI-backed assessment of triage questionnaires. Offering services for severe mental health patients with PHQ-9 score over 15 requires mobile mental health solutions to incorporate experienced psychotherapists. In this case, there are not many solutions including face-to-face therapy sessions, if needed.
  3. Appealing to mental health patients with chronic conditions: Although there are plenty of stand-alone digital mental health solutions for various mental health problems, very few of them, like SilverCloud, focuses on the chronic conditions that patients have, and therefore might be going through mental stress and anxiety. This creates a potential market opportunity by offering services to chronic condition patients with depression for example.
  4. Differentiating features: Most of the mental health solutions include a personalized patient education contents with a curriculum, tips, mood diaries, disease severity questionnaires, some kind of coaching and goal setting features. What stands out in the market is the ability of these solutions’ algorithm to give alerts to therapists from the answers logged by the patients, as well as of detecting the triggers of mood swings or substance abuse of the patients.
  5. Innovative technological additions: Augmented and virtual reality products at an affordable price are already available. There are solutions like Sympatient which have already incorporated the VR glasses into their offerings for anxiety and phobia patients. Feel is another mental health solution provider which includes a biomarker wearable to recognize emotional patterns with objective physiological data. However, the number of innovative solutions in mental health is very few, which shows that there is a potential for improvement in this area.

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Thanks to the developments like increasing investments and rising recognition from state institutions for mental health apps, more and more solutions are entering into mental health market. But what is more important for these solutions is to be able to deliver the services expected by the users, providers, and payors. And as of today, the main purpose of the mental health apps is to capture more portions of the population which needs mental health treatment, with innovative service offerings both for patients and providers.

At R2G, we have done extensive research on the digital mental health market globally. We are aware of the ways to add value into the mental health apps as well as the solutions to the potential problems that you might come across on the way to success.

Please reach out for further discussion about the strategies to build and improve your digital mental health initiatives.

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