Finding an effective way to treat mental health problems at scale is one of the biggest challenges facing policy makers, clinicians and everyday people like you and me.
However, one San Francisco startup, founded by three doctors, believes it has found the way to diagnose a range of mental problems quickly, easily and proactively.
By creating an app that measures the way you use your phone, Mindstrong believes it has found the key to unlocking the mental health puzzle.
How Does Health by Mindstrong Work?
Health by Mindstrong, runs in the background on your phone and tracks how you touch the phone while using it. This, Mindstrong says, is enough to identify any mental health problems you might be experiencing.
To be clear, it doesn’t track what you do on your phone, just how you do it.
For example, the app would be able to track the way that you type, but wouldn’t be able to see what you type. This means that it can detect patterns in the way you use your phone – do you swap back-and-forth between apps, do you make lots of errors while typing and have to correct them?
Certain patterns of phone usage can be highly indicative of brain disorders, according to Mindstrong. This means that, by using Health, users can be made aware of any issues they might have faster, and more proactively. This can help them to seek advice or treatment faster, and might improve recovery speeds.
Pattern recognition has long been used as tools in understanding whether people are experience cognitive disorder, as humans are inherently predisposed to identify patterns.
That’s the science behind Health. But what’s it like in practice?
For a start, the app is only available in the US. This is because Health works with a select number of healthcare providers, and users can only being to use the app if they've received an invitation from their healthcare provider. Without an invitation, the app won't work.
This means it’s great for some Americans, but sadly, can’t help those without insurance, who potentially can be even more at risk.
What Happens to Your Health Data?
Once you begin using the Health app, the app records your screen interactions and sends them to one of Mindstrong’s servers. All your data is encrypted, so you needn’t worry about anyone getting access to your records.
Once at the server, the data collected by the app is analyzed by machine learning algorithms looking at five ‘biomarkers’ to understand your brain’s health. These biomarkers are:
- The executive function – What you use to plan, organize, and manage your life. It allows you to filter out distractions, keep track of deadlines, break down big projects into smaller steps, and set and achieve goals.
- Cognitive control – The ability to stay on task, delay gratification, and make choices in line with your goals, rather than impulses or habits.
- Working memory – What your brain uses to temporarily store and use information to make decisions or think through a problem. Think of it like a sticky note where you store bits of information you plan to use soon.
- Processing speed – How fast your brain takes to begin or complete a task. Think of it as your reaction time to new information.
- Emotional valence – How you respond emotionally to situations, events or people. Think of it as your mood, energy, and outlook on life. A person with high emotional valence takes on new challenges, is eager to engage with the world, and takes active care of themselves. Someone with low emotional valence is more likely to interact with the world in a guarded way.
The correlation between Mindstrong's Digital Biomarkers and neurocognitive test scores. Credit: Mindstrong
The results of the analysis are then shared with the user and their healthcare provider.
Is Anyone Else Doing Something Similar?
There are loads of different apps designed to aid in the treatment of mental health issues – everything from meditation and mindfulness apps, such as Headspace, to mental health companions such as Moodpath.
However, there’s no app using technology to diagnose mental health conditions in the same way that Health by Mindstrong is. There are some that will provide you with stuff to take to healthcare professionals, but nothing that can diagnose you in the same way as Health.
It’s a truly unique piece of technology, and, perhaps if loosened from the shackles of the American health insurance market, one that could genuinely change people’s lives.
Update 22/10/18: Name of the app changed to Health by Mindstrong, clarification that Health is a referral-only app, and correction that user data is only shared with the healthcare provider, not their insurance company.