Digital Transformation in Behavioral Healthcare

Technology has transformed every area of our lives, and the mental healthcare sector is no exception. A 2019 Accenture study found that 46% of consumers would be open to receiving telehealth mental health services, even prior to the global outbreak of COVID. That percentage has likely grown as so many people have had to adapt to online experiences. In the past year, providers have found that using electronic documentation and delivering virtual services was a crucial part of surviving the pandemic and will likely be integrated into their service models for the foreseeable future. The digital transformation in healthcare is already here. Here’s a couple of key trends to look out for. 

1. User-Centric Design

Since the pandemic, many clinicians are spending more time in front of screens than ever before. Developing user-friendly interfaces and EHR experiences can reduce technology burnout. EHR vendors are starting to focus their efforts on intuitive tools that can be adapted to program workflows, minimize click-fatigue, and give clinicians more time to spend with clients. The goal is to create software systems that are designed to support clinicians in their day-to-day work, rather than becoming an administrative burden. Software vendors that actively involve agency users in their product roadmap and design process will enable design decisions that actively help make clinicians’ work easier. 

2. Client Empowerment

Technology has democratized access to many kinds of information and there is a growing awareness among consumers that they should have access to their own health information. Emerging research shows the benefits of giving clients access to their own health records. According to the ONC, providing individuals with access allows them to “monitor chronic conditions, adhere to treatment plans, find and fix errors,” while also increasing client engagement. Going forward, there will be a growing expectation for clients to have easy access to their own health data. 

There has also been an explosive rise in consumer-oriented apps and technology companies operating in the mental healthcare or mental health-adjacent space. While these apps can help expand mental healthcare accessibility and offer greater flexibility in how individuals receive services, there is little regulation over the quality of these apps. Much of the content on these apps is not overseen by any official organizations and the credibility of the sources can be questionable. Even so, the rise of mental healthcare apps demonstrates clients’ desire for more flexibility and control in their own healthcare. 

3. Interoperability

Interoperability enables platforms to seamlessly transmit data — streamlining data sharing for care coordination, billing, analytics, and more. The concept of interoperability has been around for a while. Over the years, EHR vendors have worked to establish connections with other providers through Health Information Exchanges and secure messaging, as well as integrations with government bodies through bespoke connections to state systems. 

The next phase of interoperability will involve removing any remaining barriers to data sharing and accelerating these capabilities. With the passage of ONC’s Information Blocking Rule in May 2020, the government is pushing developers and clinicians to make information more readily available to clients and other providers. Software vendors are also racing to develop FHIR capabilities, so that behavioral health tools will be able to connect with each other even more seamlessly.

4. Analytics & Predictive AI 

While many providers already use reporting on a regular basis, an agency-wide understanding of data and how it can improve care will be the next phase in leveraging digital tools. Agencies with analytics tools are starting to see the benefits of customizable dashboards that visualize information in a more digestible way. Agencies with analytics skills are able to better track outcomes, identify gaps in care, locate data errors, and report efficiently to their funders. 

Some healthcare companies are already working on predictive analytics that enable clinicians to predetermine high risk patients. Along similar lines, behavioral health clinicians may soon be able to use AI to predict which clients may be at risk for suicide attempts, panic attacks, depressive episodes, and more — allowing clinicians to respond to high-risk situations in real-time. 

5. Remote Monitoring for Behavioral Health

Our personal technology is already able to monitor our heart rates, exercise, and sleep patterns. Going forward, this data may be able to help clinicians monitor behaviors, symptoms, and risk factors. Some symptoms of mental health issues may be able to be tracked physiologically, such as changes in sleep, weight, or heart rate. Of course, there are ethical and privacy concerns to consider, as consumer trust in companies protecting their healthcare data is getting increasingly low. Additionally, benchmarking a client’s progress according to physical symptoms must continue to be balanced with the client’s self-reported outcomes. 

The digital transformation in healthcare will eventually touch every aspect of behavioral health services. While these changes will spur new questions around regulations, ethics, and outcome measures, they will hopefully empower clinicians and clients to use data in improving the quality of their healthcare.