History may one-day record “there’s an app for that” as one of the most iconic phrases of our time. And why not? Creative app developers are coming up with some pretty awesome stuff that goes well beyond playing solitaire or using your smartphone as a flashlight while you’re attempting to unlock the front door in the dark. Even psychiatry is cautiously optimistic about the app trend.
While still comparatively small, the volume of psychiatry apps is steadily growing. The marketplace is starting to see more apps that allow psychiatrists and their patients to interact outside of regular visits. In fact, 24/7 interaction is one of the benefits of the emerging psychiatry app market. But are these apps everything they are advertised?
Perhaps not. Whenever a person uses an app, regardless of what that app is, there is a trade-off. App providers make their living by collecting data that they can sell. As Psychiatric News so succinctly explained in a recently published piece, “the price of a free app is you.” That may not necessarily be good for psychiatric patients who could be more adversely affected by targeted advertising than the average consumer.
How Apps Are Being Used
There are two perspectives to consider in terms of the usefulness of psychiatry apps. The first is the doctor’s perspective. As Psychiatric News explains, doctors can use smartphone apps to access volumes of data previously unavailable to them. And make no mistake, big data is playing an increasingly important role in modern medicine.
A smartphone app can keep a doctor informed of where patients are at any given time. App data could tell them how much sleep patients are getting, what symptoms they are experiencing, etc. They can better understand what patients are thinking and feeling by looking at the data.
Psychiatrists can also use smartphone apps in the other direction. In addition to collecting data, they can also use apps to offer remote help. A word of advice here or a suggested exercise there keeps them in touch with patients between check-ins. Such little interactions can bridge the emotional gap some patients feel between visits.
Smartphone Apps and Patients
The obvious key to making the best use of psychiatry apps is patient participation. The apps only do what they are supposed to do when patients are regularly inputting data. So it is up to psychiatrists to encourage their patients to use the apps. Interestingly enough, a study cited by Psychiatry News seems to suggest that smartphone apps actually help to engage patients more than office visits.
The study showed that psychiatric patients are more likely to report symptoms considered severe if they can do so via smartphone app. In other words, they are more willing to ‘talk to their phones’ than their psychiatrists. The study showed that patients using psychiatry apps are likely to report thoughts of suicide and worsening depression.
Taking the study one step further, consider the patient whose regular doctor is out for an extended leave. That patient may be unwilling to speak openly with a locum doctor, but still engage fully with a smartphone app. The locum would have access to information he or she is unable to glean from an office visit, making it easier for him or her to treat the patient at hand.
Smartphone apps are by no means a complete replacement for in-office psychiatric visits. But to the extent they can help improve the quality of care patients receive, they ought to be utilized. Technology is here. Psychiatry might just as well make use of it.