More than 10,000 apps in the Apple and Google Play stores claim to treat psychological difficulties, and the list doesn’t stop with downloads for your smartphone. Wearables, artificial intelligence software, augmented and virtual reality, and video games all have arrived to address mental health needs in creative ways.
To be sure, those needs are great. “The global burden of disease attributable to mental disorders has risen inexorably in all countries in the context of major demographic, environmental, and socio-political transitions,” noted the Lancet Commission on Global Mental Health and Sustainable Development in 2018. The pandemic, moreover, is a portent of a “second epidemic” of mental ill-health sweeping the world.
Digital mental health solutions have increased in appeal as in-person care has been seriously compromised in a socially isolated world. Benefits in the form of improved access and affordability for consumers, personal control over the learning experience and real-time feedback have drawn the notice of governments, insurance bodies, employers and others who wish to procure these products and services on behalf of those in need.
With the huge variety of solutions has come a set of quality-control problems. An immediate question arises for any product: Which digital tools have been designed based on the best clinical evidence, and which have been tested to ensure that they provide substantive benefit to patients?
This is where the power of “soft standards” and regulation comes into play: several organizations, such as OneMind, Health Navigator and the World Economic Forum, have begun developing assessment criteria for digital mental-health tools. These measurements will allow innovators to receive a stamp of approval that a product is clinically validated, ethical, secure and effective. We predict that such mechanisms will benefit the emerging ecosystem for these types of products. Procurement bodies, both public and private, can then be assured that the products they purchase deliver as promised.
Standards will ensure that quality is considered as early as possible in the product design process. Companies will have a target to aim for to receive a stamp of approval to stay competitive, making them eager to stand out from the crowd and “show their work,” as a recent STAT News article put it. Most important, consumers can trust that the product or service meets a minimum standards.
Given the impacts of the pandemic, the global sense of urgency is clear. Innovative companies promote the benefits of their products and services directly to consumers and to the insurers and other third-party providers who ultimately pay the bills. The need to promote an appropriate set of “marketplace” standards remains a priority as companies sell their products across international boundaries. As Yuri Marichich, chief medical officer of Pear Therapeutics, said in the STAT News article, “There’s a huge opportunity here to be able to help patients if we do things right. But trust with patients is so important, trust with health care providers and also payers is so important. And you can’t have trust if you are trying to circumvent doing the right thing.”
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.