Three considerations when creating behavioral health mobile apps

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Mobile health apps for behavioral health can supplement traditional in-person therapy. They also provide greater access, convenience, scale, lower cost, and the possibility for anonymity. Mental health apps make up a large proportion of total health apps and can provide disease-specific support and management, focusing on conditions like autism, depression, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

However, when evaluating the deployment of these apps, organisations should keep several considerations in mind. With little industry regulation and peer-reviewed research, it is difficult to assess which apps are validated, effective, and secure. Organisations wishing to use IT to identify, assess, and treat behavioral health needs should keep these three considerations in mind:

Technology complements—but doesn’t replace—specialist support: Technology won’t replace mental health clinicians anytime soon, but smartphones, virtual assistants, and other digital tools can certainly complement traditional therapy and help close gaps in care and scale access. Such tools will be particularly effective if they can help patients self-manage their symptoms and reinforce therapeutic lessons in their daily lives.

Patient engagement is key to mobile app effectiveness: Although apps and other IT platforms hold promise for behavioral health, they are not a quick fix for patients with complex clinical and social needs, and these tools won’t make a significant impact unless patients are truly engaged in their care. Make sure to invest in the basics of chronic disease management (e.g., self-management education, psychosocial support) before incorporating new technologies in patient care.

Quality control is critical when building or buying mental health IT tools: Tools like mobile apps should employ validated evidence-based cognitive techniques, offer intuitive design, ensure data privacy and security, and be engaging and customisable. Ideally, providers should also be able to integrate data with EHRs without disrupting clinician workflow.

Creating an app development checklist can help to evaluate product features. The majority of behavioral health apps that exist have not been properly vetted. While many developers may enter the behavioral health space with good intentions, they don’t necessarily understand the needs of clinicians or patients. When using a third-party solution, evaluate whether:

  1. The product has been tested for its intended audience and in real health care settings; and
  2. Behavioral and mental health professionals work for the company or contributed to the development process.

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