A new smartphone application could potentially transform how patients with mental illnesses are monitored and treated by clinicians.
Uri Nevo, Ph.D., and a team of scientists from Tel Aviv University developed a system that detects changes in patients’ behavioral patterns, and then transmits them to professionals in real time. The app could greatly improve the response time and efficacy of clinical psychiatrists.
By facilitating patient observation through smartphones, the technology also affords patients much-needed independence from hospitals, clinicians — and even family members.
“The diagnosis of mental health disease is based only on behavioral patterns,” said Nevo. “In some cases, a patient is discharged from the hospital into a vacuum, with no idea how to monitor his or her new state of mind.
Because most people own smartphones today, we thought, ‘Why not harness the smartphone, a reservoir of daily activities, to monitor behavioral patterns?’
Nevo said bipolar disorder, for example, starts with a manic episode. “A patient who usually makes five or ten calls a day might suddenly start making dozens of calls a day,” he said.
“How much they talk, text, how many places they visit, when they go to bed, and for how long — these are all indicators of mental health and provide important insights to clinicians who want to catch a disorder before it is full-blown.”
Researchers conducted two clinical trials in which the application was installed on the smartphones of 20 patients suffering from bipolar, unipolar/depressive, or schizoaffective disorders, as well as on the phones of 20 healthy participants.
Over the course of six months, the app acquired data from patients’ phones and sent the information to distant computers, where advanced algorithms analyzed the data to detect changes in patients’ sleep, communication, mobility, and vocal patterns.
The researchers further developed a visualization system that displayed the summarized information to psychiatrists, providing them with instant insight into the behavioral trends of their patients.
According to Nevo, a patient using the app has full control over who has access to the behavioral patterns recorded and analyzed by it.
“We take great care to protect the patient’s privacy,” said Nevo. “The content of calls and texts is completely ignored and never acquired or recorded, and any identifying parameters of the patient or of his contacts, are irreversibly masked and are obviously not used.”
Psychiatrists in the trials reported that the system has already positively affected their interaction with patients, offering a useful objective “window” into the patient’s daily routine.
One patient who was involved in the clinical trial for only a brief period recently suffered a hospitalization.
“If I had kept the app on my phone, you would have immediately noticed the unusual number of phone calls I was making, and this hospitalization could have been prevented,” he told his psychiatrist.
“We have a way to go until such a system will be proven effective and adopted by the psychiatric community,” said Nevo.
“However, psychiatrists, as well as U.S. federal policymakers in the field, agree that such tools are necessary to improve psychiatric practice.”