How technology can be a game changer for mental health programme

In Budget this year, technology has taken a centre-stage for the health sector. Union Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced two new schemes which indicate the key role that digital technology is playing in expanding the access of health and medical care across the country.

She acknowledged that the pandemic has accentuated mental health problems in people, irrespective of their age. In order to provide better access to quality mental health counselling and care services, a ‘National Tele Mental Health Programme’ has been announced. This will include a network of 23 tele-mental health centres of excellence (CoE), with NIMHANS being the nodal centre. The International Institute of Information Technology-Bangalore (IIITB) will provide technology support.

What is National Tele Mental Health Programme

Professor TK Srikanth, Head of E-Health Research Center, IIIT Bangalore, says that these centres will provide tele-consulting and 24/7 helpline for mental health care across the country. “NIMHANS will conceptualise the programme, develop the training content, train the counsellors at the CoEs and monitor the programme. IIITB’s e-Manas platform will be extended as a comprehensive platform for mental health care at a national scale,” says Srikanth.

Benefits and concerns  

With the increased incidence of mental health conditions, especially in the post-pandemic world, it is pertinent to improve accessibility and availability of mental health services. “Tele-medicine or remote consultations hold promise in this regard. With a well-organized tele-health system, those in need can seek professional help at any time and from anywhere, thus potentially improving access to treatment, as well as better support for patients and their care givers.  By setting up the CoE’s and helplines across states, individuals should be able to access services in their local language and compatible with local cultures,” adds Srikanth.

Tele support to reduce the hesitancy

On effect of tele health support to encourage people open up about mental health, Srikanth responds positively. “Absolutely people will come forward to share their mental agony as, the ability to connect with doctors remotely while at home helps open up access to support for a large number of people who are either far away from professional help, or are not able to travel for health or socio-economic reasons,” he says.

Besides, the ability to consult doctors from the privacy of their homes would reduce the hesitancy that many have to visit mental health clinics. “Connectivity and mobile technologies can be leveraged to provide access to information, improve awareness, and deliver more user-friendly therapy and other services,” adds Srikanth.

Role of IIIT Bangalore

IIITB, informs Srikanth, has been partnering with NIMHANS on a number of initiatives to leverage technology to improve mental health services. “Along with the Government of Karnataka and NIMHANS, IIITB has developed e-Manas, a first of its kind, software platform for mental health management. As part of the tele-mental health network that NIMHANS will now help setup, IIITB will help extend the platform to integrate with tele-health and other services, thus providing a comprehensive platform for mental health care at a national scale. This will also help integrate patient data across different modes of healthcare services,” explains IIIT B professor.

Use of technology in opening new frontier in health sector

There are several ways in which technology can aid with mental health support. “In our collaboration with NIMHANS, we have explored how technology-enabled services can help improve various critical points in the delivery of mental health care. For medical professionals, technology can provide assistance in clinical settings and help manage patient records integrated across establishments with the help of platforms like e-Manas. Self-help therapy applications, such as the PUSH-D application we developed, can provide patients with a convenient and private setting to access therapy. We have helped set up an e-monitoring solution as well, that helps public health administrators plan and manage the District Mental Health program,” says Srikanth.

IIIT Bangalore is also working on a pilot project to help psychiatric social workers take rehabilitative services to the home of patients in need. According to Srikanth, there are many more such opportunities where technology and digitization can help improve accessibility, availability, and quality of mental health care.

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