Are digital trackers for mental health fit for purpose?

Digital tracking of people with mental health conditions has the power to transform medical diagnostics and treatment, but its claims need careful scrutiny, says an expert in digital analytics from the University of Bath.

The approach, known as ‘digital phenotyping’, uses digital traces from smartphones, combined with medical data, and input from patients throughout the day. It offers a new route to detect and monitor various health conditions that scientists and startups are rapidly exploring, but critical questions remain, says Dr Brit Davidson from the University’s School of Management, in General Hospital Psychiatry.

Although Dr Davidson believes that digital phenotyping has great potential she says that at present strong claims are often made without rigorous evidence.

For example, a marker of concern might be a sudden drop in smartphone-based communication. For one person this could be a sign of social withdrawal, but for another this might mean they are communicating face to face instead: the link between online and offline behaviour remains unclear and under-researched.

“There are serious ethical questions due to the intrusive nature of having all digital interactions recorded,” said Dr Davidson. “We do not yet know the impact of continuous monitoring on people, yet alone those with severe psychiatric illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar, and various depressive disorders, commonly seen in current research samples. I would like to see greater study of data from the general population as a safer avenue to pursue until the research is more established.”

Dr Davidson raises further concerns regarding privacy and data protection, both particularly important for sensitive data from devices alongside (mental) health information. Dr Davidson hopes that professional bodies will provide guidelines regarding ethical, privacy and security, and data collection protocols for conducting this research.

She also draws comparisons with medical insurance companies increasingly linking with fitness devices (eg FitBit and Vitality) to offer tailored premiums, where users won’t necessarily understand the implications. For example, forgetting to wear the device could trigger insurance to be invalidated or increase premiums if activity levels drop below a certain level.

“As the majority of the population now owns a smartphone, digital phenotyping could help to reduce digital and health inequalities as this can allow additional touchpoints for those who might use healthcare services less. However, the research remains in its infancy and requires a series of difficult questions to pave the future of digital medicine.”

The research was published in General Hospital Psychiatry.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Related articles

mhealth: the digital placebo effect of health apps

mhealth: the digital placebo effect of health apps

Sharing information about the expected effect of a health app before its use and providing positive feedback regarding its effectiveness after its use have the potential to strengthen the placebo effect.

App monitors COVID-19 symptoms and mental health needs

App monitors COVID-19 symptoms and mental health needs

A new app that helps patients in self-isolation monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 and identify their mental health needs has been developed.

Digital transformation: From sick care to proactive health care

Digital transformation: From sick care to proactive health care

“The digital transformation will make healthcare even more human. It will enable us to provide preventive and personalized healthcare,” says Prof. Dr. Koen Kas, Professor of Oncology at Ghent University, Belgium.

Wearable helps to manage mental health

Wearable helps to manage mental health

Researchers are working to develop evidence-based services that will help manage students’ mental health.

AI predicts success of digital health interventions

AI predicts success of digital health interventions

A new statistical technique from the field of machine learning is now making it possible to predict the success of smartphone-based interventions more accurately.

Digital phenotyping helps to treat mental illness

Digital phenotyping helps to treat mental illness

Research shows that digital phenotyping can provide valuable information to mental health professionals about mental illness symptom severity and relapse.

‘Prescribed’ app offers hope to young people who self-harm

‘Prescribed’ app offers hope to young people who self-harm

New research suggests that the 'BlueIce' app developed at University of Bath could have a significant impact in reducing self-harm in young people.

‘Second Chance’ app detects opioid overdose and its precursors

‘Second Chance’ app detects opioid overdose and its precursors

Researchers have developed an app that uses sonar to monitor someone's breathing rate and sense when an opioid overdose has occurred.

Sticker detects cystic fibrosis in newborn's sweat

Sticker detects cystic fibrosis in newborn's sweat

Researchers have developed a novel skin-mounted sticker that absorbs sweat and then changes color to provide an accurate, easy-to-read diagnosis of cystic fibrosis within minutes.

Popular articles

Subscribe to Newsletter