Words by Kirstie Turner
In recent years, mental health awareness has increased exponentially, but the hard fact remains that, globally, 800,000 people still die from suicide each year. For the pharmaceutical industry, the cost and intricacies of drug research into psychological disorders mean that new solutions are rare and complex; more widely, the drug versus behavioural therapy argument remains steadfast. The answer may lie in digital therapeutics, which can be harnessed for both treating mental health and as an aid to more traditional drug-based therapies. Will digital create the foundation for the next phase of psychiatric pharmacology?
Speaking at the WIRED Health: Tech virtual event, Pravene Nath, Global Head for Digital Health Strategy, Roche, discusses digital health tools: “Most digital health tools take the same three-part form. First, a wearable device or mobile app that captures patient data. Second, algorithms, including artificial intelligence, that generate insight from the data. And third, a portal for the healthcare provider to visualise the insight at the point of care.” These tools can be utilised for a large, varied range of uses in healthcare.
While we have seen an explosion of innovative technology in recent years, digital health tools are still relatively new for pharma. Nath explains: “We have all heard the stories about the explosive growth in tele-health. But, at one of the places I worked, it took us 10 years to get to 4% virtual visits.” The uptake may be slow, but future predictions for this market are huge: “It is thought that the potential market size for virtual care could reach around $250 billion,” adds Nath.
It is critical to treat digital as a true therapeutic
Despite slow uptake, digital therapeutics have made great leaps in improving treatments, prevention, and adherence for many conditions. However, there is still much to be explored in the realm of mental health. Joris Van Dam, Head of Digital Therapeutics, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, discusses the potential: “Digital therapeutics offer unprecedented opportunities to promote access to care, improve engagement, and reduce stigma. At the same time, you can apply quality control processes that are common to pharmacotherapy, yet impossible to enforce during in-person therapy.”
As the treatment of mental health using digital therapeutics is still relatively new and unexplored, Van Dam believes that trust must be developed in these products if they are to succeed as viable treatment options: “It is critical to treat digital as a true therapeutic and to garner the evidence that deserves the trust of patients, the buy-in of healthcare professionals, the clearance of regulators, and the reimbursement of payers.” These products must not be viewed as gimmicks or fads, but as legitimate tools for improving outcomes for patients living with poor mental health.
If stakeholders are to build trust in these products and treat them with equal importance to drugs in the treatment of mental health, they must be passed through the same rigorous standards of regulation and labelling. Van Dam adds: “We must provide transparency as to what the product does and doesn’t do through accurate product labelling, just like all the other healthcare products we have come to trust.”
As challenges remain, from risky investments and strict regulations to complex trials, partnering with digital tech companies could be the answer in improving digital health tools. IntroSpect Digital Therapeutics, an ATAI Life Sciences Company, is one such example of a potential partner for pharma companies. Their mission is to extend the potential of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy to change patient lives and bring innovation to the healthcare system. David Keene, CEO, IntroSpect Digital Therapeutics, outlines their goals: “Using the flexibility and power of digital technology allows us to be more capable than ever of meeting patients on their own terms.” They also focus on offering individualised therapies to patients through the power of digital, as mental health is personal and manifests differently in every patient.
While digital therapeutics are being used to treat mental health conditions, tools are also being developed to be used in conjunction with traditional therapies, to better inform their use. Van Dam continues: “These digital devices can provide accurate insights into personal behaviours that can be effectively used to target therapeutic content.” In many cases, digital therapeutics are not removing the need for treatment, but are designed to work hand-in-hand with them, elevating their impact with better informed insights.
Despite perceived challenges with high costs and regulatory pressures, the opportunities to improve outcomes for mental health patients are too valuable to ignore. Digital will continue to dominate in all areas of the health sphere and psychiatric treatment cannot be left behind: it is time for pharma to fully embrace mental health treatment developments driven by digital solutions.