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Apps fill in behavioral health clinician gaps

As healthcare providers work to engage patients and identify mental health needs, they're facing a new challenge: a shortage of mental healthcare professionals. So they're turning to apps.

“There's a greater recognition of the importance of behavioral health across all aspects of medicine,” said Dr. Eric Louie, Healthbox chief medical officer. “Because of this resurgence of interest, there's a great demand for the resources to manage this,” he said. “We have to think of more intelligent and imaginative ways of using limited resources and of engaging patients in the process.”

The thousands of health apps available in Apple's App Store and the Google Play store are a testament to that effort, as are behavioral health-specific programs popping up at health systems.

Startups focused on behavioral health raised a record $273 million during the first half of 2018, according to Rock Health. More than half of these startups have tools that are virtual or on-demand. For instance, Woebot, which raised $8 million, is a chatbot that aims to help people track and improve their moods with cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. And Akili uses gaming as a treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and other conditions.

Woebot is direct-to-consumer. But other services are recommended (or, as in Akili's case, prescribed) by providers. At Atrium Health, for instance, providers offer MyStrength, a collection of mental health and wellness tools, to patients enrolled in the system's behavioral health integration model.

But digital tools alone can't do it all. Many providers pointed out that actual people need to work alongside the apps and screens to truly make behavioral healthcare effective.

“Human , even if it is telephonic, is a key component to folks getting better,” said Erica Todd, assistant vice president of behavioral health access for Atrium. “The online tools are a nice adjunct that can fill in the gaps when our team isn't available.”

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