For years, behavioral health services were a largely ignored space. People often believe physical health comes first, the state of mind second. According to a 2014 report by the US Department of Health and Human Services, one in five Americans suffers from mental ailments. Aggravating this number are the baby boomers who are gradually aging. They are the first generation to experience a modern work environment and its related “occupational stress”. Also, the now-aging baby boomer generation is much larger than the one before it. So the number of adults with behavioral/mental health conditions are expected to rise.
However, the tables are slowly turning. Behavioral health services are gaining visibility, thanks to effective awareness campaigns and health policy mandates (like the Affordable Care Act factoring in mental health). There’s hope for a more reliable ecosystem, which will incorporate inclusive healthcare solutions.
How is technology helping build a reliable ecosystem? How can Big Data analytics in healthcare shape the industry?
On one hand, we have healthcare technology like Electronic Health Records (EHRs). While they can accurately capture physical health information, their use in behavioral healthcare is limited. Nowadays, incentives for behavioral health practitioners are increasing social and behavioral data integration into EHRs. This leads to the availability of sizable chunks of patient-related data that covers both physical and behavioral health.
On the other hand, we have wearable devices continuously monitoring physical conditions (sleep patterns, heart rate, blood pressure, weight changes, and more) and are a seamless part of our lives. More than one in 10 people in the US owns either a fitness band or a smart watch. These devices generate torrents of data, waiting to be turned into meaningful and sensible insights.
This is where Big Data and analytics come in. Big Data analytics in healthcare can play a big role in pushing overall efficiencies. They take care services out of hospitals and move it to where the patient is. More than diagnosing, they are geared to prevent ailments in the first place.
How can healthcare technology help behavioral issues?
Once we integrate the physical and behavioral EHRs, and add wearable technology data to the mix, we are looking at new possibilities for personalized healthcare and continuous monitoring. There is a mountain of evidence that suggests a relationship between behavior and physical health conditions. So, one use case for combining all this data is predicting behavioral challenges using physical health conditions and vice-versa.
For example, people with asthma are nearly 2.5 times more likely to screen positive for depression. People with any chronic physical disease tend to feel more psychological distress than healthy people. Depression is often a symptom in most cardiovascular diseases and can also exacerbate the condition. Medical practitioners and non-medical practitioners alike can access the same information and make informed decisions.
However, this is a reactive approach.
A more proactive approach would be to predict the onset of such behavioral changes using data from wearable devices. For example, sleep patterns can be used for early identification of mental disorders. This field is yet to be explored, with only a few niche players trying to sense behavioral health using the concept of ‘connected everything’.
- Zenta is a biometric wearable device which measures the change in electrical properties of the skin, along with heart rate and heart rate variability. This information coupled with the individual’s digital footprint (via calendar and social media activities) helps track his emotions and mood shifts.
- Q sensor identifies stress levels using electrical changes at the surface of the skin. Ideal for autism, it tells the user what stimuli caused which emotion, making it easier to communicate.
- Spire is a similar app used to understand user emotions from breathing patterns.
- Fisher Wallace Simulator is a headband device to help treat depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
In the next few years, with the power of Big data, analytics, and connected devices changing healthcare solutions as we know them, it is very likely that these issues will be addressed more efficiently and effectively. Experiments are being conducted in Cambridge as we speak to detect mental health issues such as dementia using wearable devices.