Digital Mental Health: Research Update

A growing demand for digital mental health tools has revealed striking shortcomings related to safety, privacy and efficacy in the mental health app market. In this update, find out how HRI has been helping to improve digital tools since 2019.

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Lack of access to mental health and addiction services is a major issue worldwide. Digital mental health tools can expand services at a low cost, but many are promoted in an unregulated environment based on unproven claims. For people to benefit, these tools must be properly assessed for safety, security and efficacy.

Since 2019, HRI has been bringing stakeholders together to drive the development and evaluation of digital therapy tools that can be used with confidence to help Canadians living with mental illness and addiction.

The following timeline highlights major milestones in the growth of our digital innovations program, led by Dr. Yuri Quintana, who is an HRI Collaborating Scientist, Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, and Chief of the Division of Clinical Informatics at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

2019

  • Quintana leads a review supported by the RBC Foundation, which reveals an absence of credible app assessments. The review calls for more reliable ways to evaluate digital therapy tools.

2020

  • Quintana collaborates with international experts to develop a Framework that – for the first time – defines methods for evaluating digital therapies in a systematic way with respect to efficacy, data security and app design. Also funded by RBC, HRI’s Framework is intended to guide app designers, doctors, scientists, and others who evaluate apps as medical treatments, such as governments, healthcare organizations and investors.

2021

  • HRI creates a protocol for co-designing apps with users to enhance user engagement, as called for by the Framework. Funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the project presents a model for engaging users in app design to identify critical product features and meaningful methods of continued engagement.
  • With funding from the McConnell Foundation, Dr. Quintana leads a national panel of experts in developing recommendations for efficacy, safety, privacy and security regulations for digital therapy tools. These recommendations are intended to guide developers, assure users and allow meaningful oversight as new apps come to market.
  • HRI and Frayme partner to improve the process of measuring how well apps work. Funded by RBC and Frayme, Dr. Quintana assembles an expert panel (including scientists, mental health professionals and people with lived and living experience) to identify the outcomes that matter most to app users. The team then determines the best tools, metrics and methods for measuring these priority outcomes in a reliable way. The resulting report outlines a standardized set of metrics and methods to evaluate, compare and ultimately improve apps.

Keeping the Momentum Going

The ongoing pandemic has exacerbated Canada’s mental health crisis. Individuals, families, workplaces and societies are suffering as a result. Digital tools have the potential to help people who may not otherwise have access to much-needed supports; we want to know that the tools they use are safe and effective.

HRI is expanding our digital innovations efforts in a way that brings service providers, evaluators, scientists, funders and product users together to improve digital tools. We continue to engage international experts in an effort to optimize collective impact and better help people living with mental illness and addiction. To make a donation that supports this vital work in Canada, click here.