As the use of mental health and behavioral apps grows, psychologists must weigh their benefits and limitations
"There's been an explosion of apps, and clinicians don't have time to keep up with all of them," says Stephen Schueller, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University's Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies. "It's not their job and it's impossible for them to do it."
But since one in five Americans uses these apps, staying informed about broad trends in app use is important for psychologists, says David Luxton, PhD, co-author of "A Practitioner's Guide to Telemental Health" (APA, 2016).
"If you're not familiar with these technologies today as a clinician, it's time to start paying attention because our patients are demanding them," he says.
Why use apps?
Many practitioners find that mental health apps are a valuable adjunct to psychotherapy because they allow therapists to maintain a better connection with their patients and improve their ability to track clients' symptoms and moods. Some of the most widely used of these apps include T2 Mood Tracker, developed by the National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2), and Optimism Online, a mood charting app that allows clinicians to monitor client entries and receive alerts to help catch problems as they arise.
San Francisco-based clinical psychologist Keely Kolmes, PsyD, says that many of her clients prefer apps to the paper-based tools that she's used in her practice for years, for recording thoughts and tracking moods.
"Apps help prompt my clients to log things like their mood or whether they exercised or drank alcohol or slept well, so that I can have an accurate picture of their week, as opposed to them trying to reconstruct things on paper the day before therapy or during therapy, which is much less reliable," she says.
Apps are also available to patients 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can be a great source of educational information, particularly at times when a client's clinician is unavailable. These include several apps by T2, such as PTSD Coach and CPT Coach, as well as Day to Day, which delivers a daily stream of advice, support and other information throughout the day to boost a user's mood. Day to Day is one of 14 apps included in IntelliCare, a suite of apps developed by Northwestern University's Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies that target depression and anxiety arising from various causes.
While more research is needed, several studies indicate that the use of health apps can also improve patient outcomes and satisfaction. A 2015 meta-analysis led by Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Torous, MD, for example, looked at 10 studies examining the use of apps in the treatment of mood disorders. The analysis found that patients who used these apps reported improved depressive symptoms (Internet Interventions, 2015). And a 2013 study led by University of New South Wales psychologist Tara Donker, PhD, found that participants who used apps reported the apps were a useful way to get self-help for mental health concerns and disorders (Journal of Medical Internet Research, 2013).
Apps can also help clinicians gather data about their practice, says APA's director of legal and regulatory affairs, Stacey Larson, PsyD, JD. For example, several apps provide HIPAA-compliant note-taking (such as Insight Notes and Mobile Therapy) and can generate graphs or tables showing client improvement as well as areas that still needed to be worked on. "A provider can use them to help determine which interventions are working best and which should be changed, and this information can be shown individually or charted for a practitioner's whole practice, to determine how interventions are working more broadly across their patient population," Larson says.
Despite their popularity, behavioral health apps are not regulated and many are not research-based, says Marlene Maheu, PhD, executive director of the Telemental Health Institute in San Diego.
"We're scientists—we need to have evidence that something works before we use it with our clients," she says.
Schueller agrees, and encourages clinicians to look for apps that come with documentation of the evidence on which they are based, including research on the intervention underlying the app, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, as well as research specifically associated with the app itself.
"The most reputable apps are generally those affiliated with academic research institutions or government funding agencies, as they are the most likely to detail the app development and validation process," he says. (See list below.)
Patient privacy and security concerns also need to be addressed any time technology is used in clinical practice. Some apps, for example, allow communication between therapists and patients between sessions—a feature some therapists might want and others might not—and it's crucial that this communication be HIPAA compliant, Maheu says. It's also important for providers to understand what, if any, data are being collected when a patient uses an app, and to make sure patients are informed about this, Larson says.
"Mobile mental health apps can be either passive or active," she explains. "Active apps require direct participation from the patient—such as completing mood logs, self-symptom ratings or recording personal experiences, but passive apps are able to access information independently and gather data through smartphone functions such as GPS without the patient or provider even noticing. Though it may be beneficial, some people may not like the potential invasion of privacy associated with this type of data gathering." And Schueller advises clinicians to show patients how to put a screen lock or password on their phones for additional security.
Integrating apps into your practice
With all of these limitations in mind, how can practitioners ensure the best use of apps in practice? Schueller recommends asking colleagues how they may use apps in therapy, and posting questions on listservs to find out what others have found works best. Several organizations provide resources and reviews of mobile health apps, to help clinicians stay abreast of the most effective and safest technologies. (See list below.) APA and the Center for Technology in Behavioral Science also hosted a webinar in May exploring the role of apps in clinical practice. The organizations received an overwhelming response to the one-hour event, with more than 1,700 clinicians registering for the event, says Maheu, CTiBS president and CEO. Two more webinars are being scheduled for the fall. It's also imperative that psychologists take time to test an app themselves before endorsing it with their clients, Luxton says.
"Install it and try out every single possible scenario inside that app so that you know it very well," he says. And always get feedback from patients on how an app is working for them, Schueller says. "As you start to learn more about which apps are really resonating with the population of clients you're working with, it will help get your practice more in line with what your clients want."
And most important, he adds, clinicians must be mindful of how apps fit into the goals of therapy. "Apps are not a panacea," Schueller says. "There's a lot of enthusiasm here and some of it is warranted. But be cautious; they will not completely fix everything."
APA does not endorse any of the apps mentioned in this article.
Mobile health app resources
- Northwestern University's Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies
This research center has developed IntelliCare, a suite of 14 apps for Android users targeting depression and anxiety.
- National Center for Telehealth and Technology
This Defense Department center has been at the forefront of mobile health efforts to help military service members, veterans and families with health issues.
An independent resource for medical and mental health professionals interested in mobile technology and health-care apps.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America Mobile App Clearinghouse
- Center for Technology in Behavioral Science
By Amy Novotney
This article was originally published in the November 2016 Monitor on Psychology