Malcolm needs a date with Dr Google

23 September 2015

The new PM can make a difference to mental health by supporting investment in technologies linked to smart systems and expert clinical care, writes Professor Ian Hickie.

app user

Healthcare at our fingertips

Perhaps it was just a coincidence. On the day Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull proposed using disruptive new technologies to drive economic development, the Director of the US National Institutes of Mental Health, Dr Tom Insel announced that he was taking up a new position with Google (Alphabet) to deliver 21st Century Mental Health Care. Believe it or not, the mental health clinic of the future is more likely to be accessed through iTunes, Facebook, Google or twitter than your local doctor.

Just as other forms of biotechnology revolutionized medicine in the 20th century, real progress in mental health care will now rely on partnerships between those directly affected, expert clinicians, engineers, data scientists and information technologists. This new team will come as a great surprise to those who have grown up with the concept that mental health care relies most heavily on personal story telling, and one-to-one interactions with counselors or therapists.

These new partnerships have the capacity to develop personal assessment systems and highly individualised treatment plans. How do they do this? Think about the various personal and mobile technology devices most people now use. Combined with other smart devices, we can now collect data about physical activity, sleep, mood, energy, memory and concentration. People then provide direct information about their own diet, alcohol and drug use and work and daily stress patterns.

When these personal data are linked to smart health systems you can build your own picture of the links between 24-hour body cycles and common mental health problems like anxiety, depression and insomnia. Now you have a real choice – you can start working on a problem immediately. Simple psychological and behavioural interventions can be provided 24/7 at no or low cost by smart apps.

Alternatively, if you choose to talk with an expert clinician, then these systems can provide access at low cost no matter where in this wide and diverse country you live. For the first time, those in rural and regional Australia may actually get a fair go.

From an expert clinician’s perspective, these devices are a real boost to delivering better care. Many of these same applications can also be used to monitor responses to medications or other more complex interventions. Behind all of these more personalised assessment and monitoring technologies sit smart systems providing direct and regular feedback to the person affected. No need to wait weeks or months for review at a clinic.

New technologies can also be used to connect those with mental health problems with others who share the same experience and to other world-wide information systems. Mental ill-health is incredibly isolating. Online systems offer real opportunities for reconnecting personally and socially. Such systems can provide the relevant links to education and employment support, social services and housing support.

As emphasised by Professor Allan Fels, there is no doubt that Australia needs to invest in quality mental health care to improve national productivity. If Prime Minister Turnbull seriously wants to show that he is focused on 21st century solutions, one of his first actions could be to follow Dr Insel’s lead and invest substantially in new technologies, linked to new smart systems and expert clinical and technical teams.

Professor Ian Hickie AM is the Co-Director of the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney.

This article was originally published in The Daily Telegraph.

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