As the burden of disease increases around the world, mental health systems, many of which are already clearly inadequate, will be stretched thin. That’s why many experts are turning to digital interventions to help manage the growing demand, by bundling psychotherapeutic treatments into computer programs and applications that can be used at home.
But how effective are digital interventions? And will people accept therapy without a human face? An international team of researchers from Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy sought to answer these questions through a systematic review and meta-analysis. published in Psychological bulletin.
The team analyzed 83 studies published between 1990 and 2020, involving 15,530 people, making it the largest and most comprehensive analysis of digital mental health care to date. The results, although mixed, are promising.
Software alone is not enough
Data suggests that digital interventions are effective in the treatment of depression, but the best results are obtained when a digital program is complemented by the support of a real human. This is when digital therapy can compete with the effectiveness of face-to-face therapy.
âDigital interventions could provide a viable, evidence-based method of meeting the growing demand for mental health care, particularly when people cannot access face-to-face therapy due to long patient lists. expectation, financial constraints or other obstacles, âsaid Isaac Moshe. , lead author of the study and doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki.
But, he notes, “software alone is just not enough for many people, especially people with moderate or more severe symptoms.”
Interestingly, the researchers found that while a level of human support behind a digital program was important, there was no marked difference in the results, whether that support was provided by a very experienced clinician or someone with less experience. experienced, as a student or intern.
Moshe said this means digital programs could be scaled up by drawing on less experienced practitioners and offer a powerful solution to a growing problem.
However, even with the help of a clinician, there are barriers to digital healthcare adoption. According to an industry-based survey, the main obstacles are cost, safety concerns and lack of digital literacy among patients. Another major therapeutic concern is the idea that spending time working face to face with a human builds trust and a sense of alliance. It is particularly true among the older generations.
Digital healthcare is generally only suitable for those who can afford to access it through a mobile phone or computer. This means that it is inaccessible for many people living in poverty or in remote communities.
AI has a role to play
The researchers also said that artificial intelligence could have a role to play, mainly in signaling risk factors for mental health and helping to develop tailored interventions.
âMore than three billion people now own smartphones and wearable devices are growing in popularity,â says Lasse Sander of the University of Friborg, who led the research team.
âThese devices produce a continuous flow of data related to a person’s behavior and physiology. With new developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning, we now have promising ways to use this data to identify whether a person is at risk of developing mental illness.
Moshe warns that the findings focus on moderate depression and that digital interventions may not be enough to address severe cases.
- This article is published in partnership with Cosmos Magazine. Cosmos is produced by the Royal Institution of Australia.