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NatCon17: Behavioral health can get boost from tech

April 3, 2017
by Tom Valentino, Senior Editor
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In a world where Uber and Lyft can dominate the ride service industry without owning vehicles and Facebook can be a kingpin in media while producing virtually none of its own content, Tom Insel, director of clinical neuroscience at Alphabet Inc.’s Verily Life Sciences research organization, envisions a more robust behavioral healthcare system that serves more clients not with beds and clinics, but technology and information science.

Addressing attendees at the National Council for Behavioral Health Conference on Monday in Seattle, Insel, the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), noted that 60% of those in need of behavioral healthcare services remain unserved, and four shortcomings plague the care for those who do receive it: a failure to provide optimal care, fragmentation of services, delayed diagnosis, and a lack of measurement-based care and training.

A major key to improving care, or as Insel said, “bending the curve,” might rest literally in the palms of our hands. Smartphone usage has soared over the past decade, going from 64 million smartphones in use worldwide in 2006 to 2 billion by 2016. Also of note: About 250 million searches were performed on Google per day in 2006. A decade later, that number climbed to more than 3.5 billion.

As Insel explained Monday, the raw data sources found in smartphones can provide detailed, continuous, comprehensive, passive measures of behavior. Overall, Insel sees three areas where technology will make a difference in behavioral healthcare: digital phenotyping, mobile interventions and care management.

Patients and their families can be empowered with an influx of good data, Insel said, but providers will need to demonstrate value and prioritize transparency and responsibility to earn trust if the technology revolution is to take off.

“This is early in what I think will be a true revolution,” Insel said. “The next 10 years will be figuring out how to make technology useful for those with mental illness. We’re on the cusp of something interesting—something we need to think about. How do we make it work not for us, but for the people we want to serve?”

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