A Guide for Developers: Building Consumer Technology for Mental Health

Consumer wearable and sensor technology present unique opportunities for out-patients and providers to check on important biomarkers in real-time. For instance, the movement tracking feature available in most consumer wearables is useful for patients who can benefit from increased activity. A meta-analysis looking at the effectiveness of exercise in treating depression shows that movement is a useful adjunct intervention for the disease (Schuch, et al., 2016). Being able to track in real-time may be difficult to achieve in a world where biomonitoring is only available in the medical setting.

These new products being designed to be user-friendly may also increase the chances of obtaining longitudinal data. Longitudinal data allows providers to give more precise treatment plans. Researchers can also use this data to advance our understanding of mental health.

3 examples of consumer technology that’s useful in the mental health prevention and treatment process:

  1. Abilify MyCite– A smart pill with an Ingestible Event Marker (IEM) sensor inside it. The aripiprazole tablet helps adults in the treatment of schizophrenia and MDD. The patient swallows the pill, and the pill sends a signal to a wearable Bluetooth patch that connects with the smartphone.
  2. Oura Ring– A ring that uses advanced sensor technology to deliver precise health insights. Having an Oura ring allows users to get immediate feedback on movement and sleep, two major mental health components.
  3. Fitbit– A wrist wearable recently acquired by Google that monitors activity, heart rate, and sleep quality.

For developers who are interested in building wearable technology for mental health, here are a few notes from the field of Psychology that may be useful for you:

  1. Ensure that notifications are not shame-based, especially if you are building for patients with MDD. Patients know that they need to move, but they often do not have the energy nor emotional capacity to. An effective notification system requires compassion and empathy in the way the message is communicated.
  2. Consider creating alternative systems when building for patients in countries that have lower technological bandwidth. Communities where WiFi is not as fast as the United States can not access a full-feature app with the same ease and speed.
  3. Partner with Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Neuroscientists, and other related professionals/researchers before building. We may provide evidence-based insights and be honest about what we do not know yet. This leads me to #4:
  4. Be mindful that the combination of symptoms differs even when patients share the same diagnosis. Know that the field of mental health research is still young, therefore we need to be up to date constantly with the latest research. Nothing is set in stone yet. We are now only beginning to research the neurobiological basis of various mental disorders. Several challenges lie within this research field as the foundation of a particular condition is mostly based on behavioral insights. The lack of homogeneity in the research sample due to the lack of precision in categorizing illnesses makes it difficult to have a neurobiological basis for all disorders.
  5. Wearable technology can only aid, not heal, disorders. Never claim the latter. Healing requires a holistic approach because mental health is more than somatic markers—it’s thoughts, feelings, and interpersonal relationships. Perhaps we can codify thought one day. But for now, we still do not have biomarkers for the valence of thoughts — meaning we can not track if someone is thinking negative or positive thoughts; we can only best guess by using other data points.