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mHealth Becomes a Valuable Tool in the Battle Against Suicide

A Colorado provider is using a connected care platform to help teens and young adults - and their families - deal with adverse reactions to depression medications.

By Eric Wicklund

- A Colorado-based healthcare provider that helps teenagers and young adults taking antidepressant drugs is turning to mHealth to help them avoid dangerous side-effects.

Sundance Diagnostics uses a two-pronged approach, combining a precision medicine test with a non-drug treatment plan, for patients and their families. It’s a serious pursuit: Studies have found that as many as half of Americans taking antidepressants experience adverse side-effects, and a February 2016 British Medical Journal study found that teens and young adults taking antidepressants doubled their risk of suicide or aggression.

“There isn’t much time to lose,” says Kim Bechthold, the company’s CEO, noting that suicidal thoughts can emerge within days of a patient starting an antidepressant regimen. “It’s very tough for the (patient) and their families to even know what to do.”

While the Sundance genetic test helps clinicians identify whether a drug is having the desired effect on a patient, the company’s TeleNavigator program offers more immediate results. Each patient and family is assigned a TeleNavigator, who offers education, support and immediate feedback via Skype, e-mail, text or phone call. The TeleNavigator can access medical records, advocate for patients and their parents, identify alternatives to medication treatment, and be the first and immediate point of contact should an adverse reaction occur.

“This is the support system missing in behavioral medicine,” says Bechthold, who’s now working on a TeleNavigator app to simplify the process. “Only about 5 percent of (behavioral healthcare providers) are actually able to monitor their patients, so the burden often falls on the family.”

“The mental health system in the United States is poorly equipped to respond to and effectively manage medication side-effects,” she says. “Few families are educated or experienced in how to do so - resulting in higher medical costs and significant financial and personal losses.”

To further that mHealth link between the patient and the clinician, Sundance is now eyeing a collaboration with an MIT-based startup. The company, Affectiva, has developed a facial recognition technology platform that can analyze and process a patient’s facial expressions through a computer, tablet or smartphone, identifying moods. That data is then passed on to a clinician.

Bechthold says that platform could enable clinicians to identify a patient’s mood within minutes just by having that patient look into a video screen, even spotting signs that the patient might not notice or be willing to share. And like the TeleNavigator, it would enable clinicians to work with patients and their families at any time and place.

That’s the promise of mHealth in a field where adverse reactions could turn deadly. Bechthold says behavioral health patients and their caregivers – friends, family, classmates, co-workers – need a link to the clinician beyond the office. Only one-third of patients improve on their first medication prescribed, and adverse reactions to a medication might not be easily recognizable. Sometimes a teen or young adult may look like he or she is improving, when in fact the opposite is happening.

“We need to be focused on reaching out not just to the patient, but to the family,” Bechthold says, “so that we can make this whole process safer and hopefully more effective.”


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