Clinicians and patients are both positive about digital tech for mental health, study finds

Researchers in Manchester found that the idea of using digital technology for physical health interventions to boost mental wellbeing was well received

9th November 2023 about a 4 minute read
“They [young people] were interested in finding out how their lifestyle behaviours such as exercise and diet impact on their mental health experience on a day-to-day basis. The least popular option was for these apps to share their healthcare data." Dr Joseph Firth, senior research fellow, University of Manchester

Both clinicians and consumers feel positive about the use of digital technologies to support mental health and wellbeing, research has found.

Dr Joseph Firth, senior research fellow at the University of Manchester and honorary fellow at Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, spoke at a Health Tech Newspaper (HTN) event about research he is undertaking into digital lifestyle interventions in mental healthcare.

Firth’s team began by looking at the evidence for using lifestyle approaches in psychiatry and in the treatment of psychiatric conditions. The review found strong evidence to support the use of physical exercise to boost mental health, he said, both in preventing mental illness and in treating it

‘Vast majority’ of clinicians believe digital tools are useful

The team then went on to look at how digital technologies for promoting physical health could be integrated into mental health care. The researchers sought feedback from clinicians, first through a survey questionnaire and then through in-depth qualitative interviews, on how they’d like to use digital health approaches for improving physical health.

The responses from clinicians were highly positive. Asked about different lifestyle interventions – physical activity and exercise, healthy eating and diet, smoking and tobacco use, sleep and alcohol – the “vast majority” of clinicians felt that digital technologies would be useful in all of them, Firth said. The qualitative interviews showed that they were also interested in learning how digital tools could support interventions such as healthy eating and reducing alcohol intake.

The researchers also asked more than 500 young people with diagnosed mental illness about digital approaches. A minority were already using apps, in most cases those such as Fitbit, MyFitnessPal or Couch to 5k rather than apps relating to alcohol or drug use cessation. They also asked the young people to choose which of four app-based approaches they would be interested in using: tracking (for example tracking sleep or steps); health coaching to get feedback on their lifestyle; instructional videos (such as healthy cooking classes or exercise support); and health connections (using digital technology to connect people to health opportunities in their local communities).

The findings showed that there was a significant level of interest in all four approaches from the young people. Instructional videos were the most popular, followed by health coaching, then health tracking and finally health connections.

New trial of live workouts for people with mental health conditions

Delving further into how they would want the tracking apps to be used, the most popular idea involved “not only using these technologies for physical health but for mental health too,” Firth said. “They were interested in finding out how their lifestyle behaviours such as exercise and diet impact on their mental health experience on a day-to-day basis. The least popular option was for these apps to share their healthcare data. The results indicate that patients are not as interested in setting up a system where they track their health and their clinician receives that data, which is somewhat at odds with what healthcare services might want to provide.”

The team are now testing the most popular approaches – by, for example, starting a trial of live workouts for young adults with mental health conditions. “We’ll be livestreaming these workouts and giving everybody who joins the group a FitBit to help them support their own health tracking in their own time, without needing to share the data with us,” Firth said. Young people receiving in early intervention from mental health services will be invited to the online fitness sessions, which will be delivered two to three times a week across Greater Manchester.

The researchers are also launching a trial of the Smoke Free app, an evidence-based smoking cessation app in the UK. The app, which offers both health tracking and health coaching, will be tested with young adults with mental illness who are looking to quit smoking, to see how they respond to the different features.

FCC Insight

It is well-established that people with poor mental health tend also to have worse physical health outcomes. It has also been clearly demonstrated that interventions to improve physical health – exercise in particular – can also boost mental health. Dr Joseph Firth and his team are doing valuable work by investigating how the use of digital technologies, such as video workouts and health coaching, might improve both better physical and mental wellbeing in young people with mental health problems. It’s encouraging to see that both clinicians and young people themselves are receptive to the idea of using technology in this way, and we will be interested to see the results of the trials. At FCC, we are engaged in looking at moving beyond traditional approaches to investigating innovative ways in which digital tech can support people with mental health problems.