What a Digital Psychotherapy Study Reveals about Patients' Tolerance for Healthcare Technology

digital psychotherapy

For the telehealth field, this study of mental health patients offers insights into how potential users view digital psychotherapy apps.  

In recent years, new digital health apps have come on the market, covering a slew of services ranging from daily period tracking to glucose monitoring. The hope is that these digital offerings will provide more convenience and health data while preserving high-quality patient outcomes. But this field is still new, and with digital services varying widely, it’s not yet clear how best to attract patients who may benefit from an alternative to traditional care.

A new study provides some insight into how patients think about healthcare technology. The survey of 164 U.S. adults, published recently in npj Digital Medicine, examined whether patients would use a digital psychotherapy app to replace face-to-face care. The results were surprising; while patients were willing to try digital options, their responses suggest a slight preference for one-to-one care because of efficacy, access, and privacy. As the revolution in the digital healthcare revolution proceeds, stakeholders will want to consider these insights into patient mindset.

Above All, Digital Healthcare Should Work Well

If a digital healthcare solution is going to succeed, patients need to believe it can be effective. That’s especially crucial for fields like mental health — most patients with depression who visit a therapist attend only one therapy session. 44.5% of patients in this study said they would prefer an in-person appointment, believing this would keep them motivated and accountable.

To reassure patients and help them stick with their treatment plans, most digital healthcare solutions must be used in conjunction with face-to-face care. Self-guided digital applications were the preferred treatment for some 25.6% of those surveyed, indicating that patients definitely have interest in effective digital health tools. The question is how to integrate them successfully into existing healthcare infrastructure.

For psychotherapy, self-guided digital treatments could easily supplement occasional in-person visits. Applications could then communicate progress to the patient’s care team, allowing care continuity in and out of the doctor’s office.

Digital Healthcare Should Promote Access

One exciting promise of digital health solutions is the ability to increase healthcare access, and stakeholders should prioritize this when choosing tech solutions. Any number of barriers can prevent patients from seeking healthcare, especially for mental health issues, but digital solutions can help circumvent those roadblocks.

Location and transportation can be major barriers to seeking treatment. In this study, 48% of those surveyed lived in a rural area, where there may or may not be medical specialists. In rural areas with no public transit, a patient who lacks access to a car will have trouble traveling to appointments. Digital health apps could allow patients without transportation to receive valuable care from home, reducing the number of visits they’d have to make to a doctor’s office.

Another interesting use case for digital health and access is for people without insurance. For example, not all health insurance covers mental health treatment, and in many cases, telehealth services provide more convenience, transparency, and cost savings compared with paying for therapy through insurance. In the npj survey, some 48.2% of participants said that cost was a factor while seeking treatment, while 26.8% specifically cited the limitations of their insurance plans.

A less concrete but equally impactful barrier is the stigma around seeking help for certain health conditions, including addiction and other mental health issues. Some 26.2% of patients cited this as a factor in their decision-making. For digital platforms, this can be an advantage — in many ways, online activity is more private than in-person visits. A well-designed user experience, consistent service, and even free trials can help beckon hesitant patients.

Digital Apps Should Protect Patient Privacy

In the npj study, some 15.2% of patients cited privacy and confidentiality as major concerns with digital health solutions. This included concerns about data breaches, as well as recording or sharing of sensitive information. In fact, this number is surprisingly low, given serious patient privacy concerns among industry experts.

Potential patients who do their research on online mental health services may be turned off by some controversial stories. For instance, the startup BetterHelp promised to provide convenient online therapy sessions, but has been stymied by critiques of its celebrity sponsorship model and service inconsistencies. Many health apps are known to sell data, which may surprise users who didn’t read the fine print. For mental health patients in particular, the inherent sensitivity of the information could make patients hesitant to engage online, and telehealth developers should take note of these concerns.

Building the Future of Digital Health

Overall, this study suggests that mental health patients are willing to explore digital options — when asked to pick a single care mode, digital options collectively outnumbered the 44.5% who preferred an in-person visit. But those choices came with many caveats and concerns. Patients wondered whether digital solutions actually work, and had worries about privacy. Those may be areas in which telehealth still needs to build trust. At the same time, patient concerns about accessibility show that digital solutions do have the potential to answer real patient needs. As digital medicine continues to evolve, these are key factors to recognize within the available research.