Psychiatrist: even imperfect apps can help mental health patients

Jeff Rowe
Psychiatrist: even imperfect apps can help mental health patients

Not all healthcare providers are sold on the value of mobile apps for helping patients with mental health issues, but at least one physician believes that using such tools, even bad ones, is preferable to receiving no care at all.

Writing recently at The Doctor Weighs In, Steven Chan, a resident physician in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine, says that while many of his peers often are wary of recommending apps focused on mental health issues because of weak or non-existent data protection and patient privacy, when a patient has no other therapeutic alternatives, apps, even mediocre ones, constitute an option worth considering.

“Is it better to have something that isn’t the gold standard--perhaps a 'silver' or 'bronze' standard--than to have no treatment, which is an unfortunate reality for many?" Chan asks. "The gold standard is frequently out of reach, so why not turn to an imperfect app?”

Yes, he concedes, “apps that have poor privacy protections may leak your personal information, perhaps even your diagnoses and medications. That means that future employers, insurance companies, and family members and friends could access this information.”

But that risk must be weighed against the potential cost of inaction. After all, Chan notes, “some say that privacy is dead anyways; a research review by Glenn and Monteith states that so much of our diagnoses, health conditions, and personal lives can be reconstructed from our online activity: reading web pages on depression, purchasing books on depression, searching for health symptoms, credit card purchases at an online pharmacy, driving directions to a psychiatrist, or liking a Facebook page on depression.”

The bottom line, Chan says, is that any treatment has risks. “The medications don’t always work, and may have side effects . . . (And) books, exercise, classes, physical therapy, and talk therapy each have their own individual upsides and downsides.”

For Chan, however, those risks aren’t enough to justify stopping the development and adoption of  promising new technologies as long as providers aware of the side effects.