Using Apps to Support Physical Health in Behavioral Health Settings
Like many people, I own a smartphone. Nearly 90 percent of Americans own a cell phone and 64 percent own a smartphone. My smartphone came with a pre-downloaded “Wellness Tracker” app that can track my steps, my diet and even my sleeping patterns and heart rate if I connect to a “wearable” like Fitbit. Even the Food and Drug Administration sees the benefits of apps to promote a healthy lifestyle and has classified most of them as “low-risk” to encourage development of new technologies.
But, there are more far-reaching uses than just pinging you to meet your daily walking goals. Mobile apps offer a low-cost way to supplement a physician’s reach and a patient’s self-care by allowing patients to track moods or physical conditions in real-time. As a result, physicians can more accurately gauge care’s effectiveness.
During a National Council for Behavioral Health Technology Learning Community, 19 organizations explored how to expand and embed smartphone apps into physical health care provided at behavioral health settings. To make sure physical needs were also a part of the clinical conversation, the learning community looked at the processes and clinical perspective of using apps and other devices to monitor people living with chronic diseases, like diabetes or hypertension, at mental health and addictions treatment organizations.
Two organizations, the Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI) and North Central Behavioral Health Systems (North Central), were two of the organizations that participated in the learning community.
AACI created a Technology for Health group that consists of an integrated care team—including a dietitian and primary care physician—to ensure that patients know how to monitor their chronic health conditions. AACI divided patients with behavioral health diagnoses into two groups: an English-speaking group and a Mandarin-speaking group. Both used Tactio Health App to manage health goals relating to diabetes and hypertension and to identify obstacles to treatment and coping skills to manage health and stress.
AACI found that while most participants benefited from talking about their experiences in a supportive group environment, many had difficulty using the technology itself, like having trouble signing in and remembering their password. Some simply preferred to use pen and paper, instead.
North Central created a Health Living group that used Tactio Health App on Apple devices and Withings Health Mate on Android tablets to supplement group meetings to determine if this technology improved treatment engagement for this population. During the trial, North Central discovered that technology increased satisfaction with treatment and that the severity of the illness did not affect the level of engagement.
Because most of the group participants had limited access to mobile data services, North Central adopted alternatives such as purchasing small, inexpensive tablets for the group’s participants. They also taught them how to log into Wi-Fi zones to share and track their data, and North Central staff provided hands-on demonstrations and written instructions to the group. At the end of the trial, many reported positive changes such as weight loss, achieving their personal health goals and improvement in motivation.
The experiences of organizations such as AACI and North Central indicate that mobile apps have great potential for enhancing patient’s care experiences—especially when used in tandem with group meetings—to create a more supportive team environment. Although such technology offers tremendous promise, more research and case studies are needed to learn how to effectively implement technology within behavioral health care.