Lawson explores technology to support youth mental health

Researchers smiling at camera.

Lawson explores technology to support youth mental health

Puneet Seth, Jennifer Moles, Dr. Cheryl Forchuk, Dr. Sandra Fisman and Damon Ramsay spoke at the funding announcement in February 2019.

Imagine having your care team at your fingertips. Picture opening an app on your phone to schedule a virtual visit where you can have a face-to-face meeting, without ever leaving your home. What if you could fill out an online questionnaire and instantly send it to your physician to let them know how you are doing?

As technology advances, the opportunities to connect and empower patients and clients seem endless. Mental health services are rooted in these relationships. For delivery, specifically community-based and outpatient services, connection and communication between an individual and the care provider are a priority focus.

But how do we integrate technology into mental health services, without losing that sense of connection?

While it may seem easy to download an app on a phone or tablet, this can bring issues with privacy and security. Many apps are not proven effective, and some can actually do more harm than good.

In the health care sector, the use of technology needs to be carefully tested and implemented through evidence-based research, to ensure it is not only meeting the needs of those using it but also that it complies with standards for privacy and security.

Through funding from the Government of Ontario’s Health Technologies Fund (HTF), researchers at Lawson Health Research Institute (the Research Institute of London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Health Care London) are partnering with industry to develop a unique approach to connect technology and mental health care. TELEPROM-Y is a mobile-based TELEMedicine and Patient-Reported Outcome Measurement Youth study that looks to leverage technology to improve access to specialized services and reduce inpatient mental health admissions for youth.

Technology is a regular form of communication for youth and they are a vulnerable population when it comes to mental health challenges. “Our research team is looking at how technology can assist in the delivery of mental health services for youth in a way that still supports the important components of treatment,” says Dr. Cheryl Forchuk, Assistant Scientific Director at Lawson and lead for the study. “In our work with youth, they’ve talked about wanting the technology they are already using integrated into their care.”

The majority of mental illnesses occur between the ages of 16 to 25 years old. This important transitional period in a youth’s life marks an opportunity for them to be actively engaged in their own care journey.

Researchers will use an electronic Collaborative Health Record (CHR) developed by InputHealth, an innovative Canadian digital health software company. This software allows secure communication between the patient and care team. Patients will have access to virtual visits, prompts and reminders, text or email messages, and educational materials delivered by phone or another device.

The research team is recruiting participants between the ages of 16 to 25 years old who have symptoms of anxiety and/or depression and are receiving outpatient services from a hospital-based mental health care program at London Health Sciences Centre, St. Joseph’s Health Care London, Woodstock General Hospital, or community-based services from partner organizations. A key aspect the research team is investigating is whether the technology is effective and efficient, while acceptable to both the care team and youth.

Two men demonstrating phone app.

“We know from research that remuneration on mood, or focusing deeply on mood, without communication can actually increase depression,” says Dr. Cheryl Forchuk. “We’ve only been interested in technology that supports the relationships necessary for mental health services.”

The mobile software will also be evaluated on its ability to improve access to care; monitor mood and behaviour changes for earlier intervention; enhance information exchange between patient and health care provider; and, support the overall experience for the youth.

“Careful evaluation is essential to make sure we are doing the right things for the people we serve,” adds Dr. Forchuk, who is also the Beryl and Richard Ivey Research Chair in Aging, Mental Health, Rehabilitation and Recovery at Lawson and Western University.

This initiative is one of 11 that received funding from Ontario’s second round of the Health Technologies Fund (HTF), a program of the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care administered by Ontario Centres of Excellence. This funding program supports the development of made in Ontario health technologies by accelerating evaluation, procurement, adoption and diffusion within the Ontario health system.

TELEPROM-Y received $395,109 in provincial funding with $494,630 in matching contributions for a total investment of $889,739.

“This collaboration matches financial investment from the province, along with technical tools and expertise from the private sector, with our patient-centred approach,” says Dr. Forchuk. “Together, we can bring solutions to life and translate them quickly to care delivery once shown to be effective.”

Other project contributors include St. Michael’s Hospital Centre for Excellence in Economic Analysis Research, The Forge (McMaster University), Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, Western University and Youth Opportunities Unlimited (Y.O.U.).

The TELEPROM-Y study is one example of how dedicated research funding can be used to drive discovery with potential to create a tangible impact on patients. Research-intensive hospitals are improving health care, creating jobs and contributing to the country’s growing knowledge economy.

Lawson is one of Ontario’s 23 research hospitals that contribute to a healthier, wealthier, smarter province. Look for other RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT posts on our Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter blog or join the conversation about why health research matters for Ontario on Twitter, using the hashtag #onHWS.