Prioritizing staff wellness with mental health apps
Healthcare is a tough place to work at the best of times – and it hasn’t exactly been the best of times for the past three years. As the COVID-19 pandemic ripped through the United States, it also ravaged the mental health of clinical, administrative, and support workers across the care continuum, leaving an overwhelming proportion of staff feeling burned out, depressed, anxious, and ready to leave their jobs.
If there is a silver lining to be found among these dire circumstances, it’s that the conversation around mental healthcare has now become a lot louder. With workers demanding more action from leadership, health systems are now taking a very serious look at how to support staff in a meaningful, impactful way.
“The past few years have brought much broader recognition that we need to destigmatize mental health for healthcare providers and staff – really destigmatize it, not just go through the motions,” said Thomas Jenike, MD, Senior VP and Chief Wellbeing Officer for Novant Health based in North Carolina. “We need to offer practical tools that make it easier and more acceptable to focus on mental health as a core part of wellbeing.”
Using mental health apps to support staff wellness
Technology is playing an important role in connecting staff with resources to manage their mental health, said Jenike. For example, Novant Health recently received a grant from the Duke Endowment to support the rollout of a mental health management app from NeuroFlow that can reach both groups.
“For our team members, it’s completely confidential so they can feel comfortable using the app without feeling like it might impact their career or their relationships with colleagues,” he explained. “The only exception is when a user triggers certain thresholds that indicate a high likelihood for self-harm or other crisis, at which point the app offers to connect them directly to a mental healthcare professional or to a national behavioral health hotline.”
In just the first two weeks after rolling out the tool, Novant had about 800 downloads from clinical team members and around 2,500 recorded interactions through the app.
“That means that users are engaging with the tool multiple times, which is great to see,” said Jenike. “We have a lot of folks who are closely involved in our wellness efforts who are giving positive feedback already, and we’re looking forward to increased uptake as word gets around that this is a helpful thing to be using.”
Keeping patients connected through digital tools
The tool has applications for patient care, as well. Patients as young as 13 will have access to the same services, but without the anonymity component so the app can be used as an active part of the care process.
“We envision this to be a very valuable addition to the primary care toolkit, especially since the nationwide shortage of mental healthcare providers can make it difficult to stay on top of these types of concerns,” Jenike explained. “As a family doctor, I’d say maybe 30% to 40% of my patients have a concomitant mental health condition that is somehow related to their chronic condition. We’re just starting to understand how they affect one another, and technology will give us much more insight and more support when managing these situations.”
Jenike also believes similar technologies will have applications in specialty care. “Most oncology patients, for example, are going to be experiencing some degree of depression or anxiety around their diagnosis. And we know that conditions like heart disease and diabetes have a two-way relationship with mental health. Having an app to allow for more holistic, proactive care will be crucial for assisting patients with their overall health.”
Laying the foundation for better mental health in the future
Technology helps to close the gap between stigma and need by providing a safe place for staff and patients to work through their concerns and chart their progress. Unfortunately, the relative novelty of these approaches means reimbursement structures aren’t yet in place to ensure that providers can spend time with patients using the apps as part of the care process.
“Reimbursement is always the problem, especially in an area that’s still so new and remains outside of the traditional approach to care,” acknowledged Jenike. “But we need to get these tools into the real-world setting so we can prove their value and offer evidence to payers that they should be reimbursable.”
“From my perspective as a physician and an executive leader, it just makes sense to integrate digital mental health tools into the clinical care environment, and I’m glad we can contribute to building the evidence base of how well they work.”
Even as the industry works to further integrate technology-driven strategies into mental healthcare, there’s plenty that health system leaders can do to enhance wellbeing for their staff and the patients they serve, he pointed out.
Jennifer Bresnick is a journalist and freelance content creator with a decade of experience in the health IT industry. Her work has focused on leveraging innovative technology tools to create value, improve health equity, and achieve the promises of the learning health system. She can be reached at email@example.com.