Thunder Bay

Need a therapist? There's an app for that

Health care professionals met at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre on Thursday to look at ways of using smart technologies, such as mobile phones, in health care - particularly for patients in the remote north.

Health care professionals met in Thunder Bay Thursday to discuss smart technologies in health care

Dr. Dror Ben-Zeev is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington. He's also the co-director of the BRiTE Centre, which stands for Behavioral Research in Technology and Engineering. He says its possible to develop good therapeutic relationships with people with mental health problems via text messaging. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

Health care professionals met at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre on Thursday to look at ways of using smart technologies, such as mobile phones, in health care — particularly for patients in the remote north.

The keynote speaker was a Seattle, WA psychiatry professor whose BRiTE Centre — which stands for Behavioral Research in Technology and Engineering — is developing and testing mobile applications to assist patients with addictions and mental illness. 

"Think about an individual who otherwise might not have any access to resources and who might be terribly socially isolated and might even live tens, if not hundreds, of miles from the local clinic, where they may or may not have access to high-quality evidence-based care," said Dr. Dror Ben-Zeev, during a break at the hospital's first ever Research Day.

Smart technologies, he said, can bring a therapist into those people's pockets.

The BRiTE Centre has developed a mobile app called Focus, which helps people manage their mental health.  

A much clearer picture of mental illness

Users can ask for help with problems such as mood disorders, auditory hallucinations, and insomnia. The app asks them to record their symptoms and offers them treatment options.  

People suffering from anxiety, for example, can choose to view a video in which a therapist walks them through some relaxing breathing exercises. 

Where the app differs from similar services online, such as relaxation videos and meditation apps, Ben-Zeev said, is that patients can choose to share their usage data with their doctors, and that data can significantly help a physician improve treatment.

"Our therapy technology is really 19th century technology, where the only way that we can learn what people are thinking, feeling and functioning is by asking them to come into a clinic and report to us how they're feeling that day or that week,"  Ben-Zeev said. "That is prone to a host of influences."

Asking people to check in with a mobile app multiple times a day provides a much clearer picture of how a patient is actually functioning, he said, and it's led to considerable insights. 

Therapy by text message?

"When we think of someone with a psychotic disorder, and we label them delusional, that assumes that they have delusional beliefs that are fixed and chronic and unchanging," Ben-Zeev said. "But once we start deploying mobile technologies that ask them about their delusions, we actually see that that's not true."

Using smart phone data, a doctor can explore which contexts seem to exacerbate symptoms and tailor treatment accordingly, he added. 

Focus is not currently on the market for use outside of research settings, but Ben-Zeev said his main goal in speaking at events like Thunder Bay's Research Day is to inspire people to look for solutions in technologies that are available —such as text messaging.

"Interestingly enough, we find that not only can you develop a therapeutic relationship entirely via text, but compared to in-person care, patients often rate that relationship as even better and stronger," he said.

"That is available to people to start ... using creatively with the mobile devices that they already have."