Many start-ups are using Microsoft technology to improve treatments and therapies for mental health disorders, enabling individuals to take their care into their own hands.

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Using Microsoft technology to empower mental healthcare

According to the 2021 investment recap of healthcare venture fund Rock Health, digital health start-ups offering mental healthcare services raised $5.1 billion. This is $3.3 billion more than any other clinical indication in 2021, and nearly double the funding total of $2.7 billion in 2020.  

For many of us, the need for these investments is underscored by our own experiences. I recently lost a dear friend and colleague to mental illness. I often wonder if her family and friends could have prevented her untimely death. The answer may lie in new ways of using technology to fill the gaps between office-based treatments that provide the practitioner with new ways to monitor the patient, communicate readily and easily, and identify early signs of a potential problem.

A growing number of innovators are building these types of technology-based mental health solutions that have the potential to support the patient and their family and community, while striving to ensure that such tragedies become less frequent.

In my role at Microsoft, I’m able to see first-hand how technology is being used to improve mental health. Ksana, Ellipsis Health and Bipolar Buddy are all taking different approaches, but remain focused on reducing the impact of depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder on patients and their families.

Digital mental health technology start-up Ksana Health was established in Oregon, USA, in 2019 by Dr. Nick Allen, an experienced ­clinician and leading researcher in digital ­phenotyping passive sensing via smartphones. He recognised that commercialising this technology for use in research and healthcare would create an opportunity to accelerate the transformation of ­mental healthcare delivery and have real impact by improving outcomes for millions of people who face mental health challenges. Allen, along with co-founder and experienced business leader Will Shortt, founded Ksana Health to fulfill this vision.

Ksana Health’s solutions are designed to bring therapy out of the office and into everyday life with personalised insights and interventions that improve mental healthcare and enable ­better quality of life. Instead of relying on subjective self-reporting and periodic observations by clinicians and staff, Ksana’s Vira platform converts continuously and passively collected quantifiable behavioural patterns from patients’ mobile phones and wearables into actionable and objective insights. Practitioners can use these insights to build personalised therapy plans, making treatment more effective by allowing them to nudge clients at the optimal time for behavioural change.

Behind the scenes, Ksana Health has incorporated Microsoft’s Azure healthcare application programming interface for Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources into Vira to facilitate the exchange of electronic health records.

Ellipsis Health was founded with the belief that our mental health should have the same priority as physical health. Its founders, Mainul Mondal, Michael Aratow and Susan Solinsky, saw an opportunity to connect the dots between the two – establishing a vital sign for mental health.

Ellipsis Health uses voice-based technologies powered by artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse speech and monitor the severity of depression and anxiety. The US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that symptoms of these disorders impact one in five Americans, and the associated costs are thought to reach over $1 trillion each year, according to research published in The Lancet Psychiatry. As such, Ellipsis Health’s integrated solution helps healthcare payers, providers and digital industry players to reliably identify and stratify patient populations.

The solution uses cloud-based deep learning models to assess patient speech and generate a real-time clinical score for the severity of anxiety and depression. The technology is based on the semantics and acoustics of natural speech, while maintaining compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and General Data Protection regulation.

Founded in 2021, Bipolar Buddy was established to help patients with bipolar disorder to achieve and sustain remission. Bipolar disorder affects approximately three per cent of the American population, according to the NIMH. The team at Bipolar Buddy is focused on using AI and machine learning to support mood tracking and pattern recognition, with the ultimate goal of discovering underlying causes of mood changes and providing effective forecasting and predictions based on historical data.

Through the Bipolar Buddy app, users can manage their mood symptoms and keep track of their progress. This is a very personal mission for the team at Bipolar Buddy; the organisation was founded by Anish Suri, who was diagnosed with bipolar when he was 19. After numerous visits with psychiatrists, experiencing extreme low points and wanting to remain autonomous and in control of his life, he started developing the technology. Suri is now on a mission to scale the solution and enable others to gain better insight into their cycles and how to manage them.

Mental health innovations like these can provide greater continuity of care, improve detection of specific challenges, and deliver more effective and earlier interventions that support patients in non-stigmatising ways.

Sally Frank is worldwide lead for health and life sciences at Microsoft for Startups

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