Digital health companies debate: how much can we scale the human element in mental health?

Patients, employers and investors have turned to mental health apps in droves since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. But what’s the best approach? Four leaders from well-funded digital health startups debated the role of self-guided mental health programs, coaches and therapists in a virtual panel discussion at the What’s Next in Health Care conference.

On one side, Lyra Health COO Dr. Connie Chen said a spectrum of care options is needed to address people’s mental health needs. The company’s approach emphasizes appointments with therapists and coaches, with messaging and digital exercises in between.

“That’s a model that allows us to leverage the goodness of providers, the human connection that forges, but making that treatment more efficient,” she said. “Lyra is extremely old school. We see there are a lot of individuals who won’t come to care unless it is in-person and face-to-face.”

This approach has won over Lyra some big clients, including Starbucks and Morgan Stanley. It also has netted Lyra a $4.6 billion valuation.

On the other side of the ring, Big Health CEO Peter Hames emphasized the use of self-guided therapy apps. His startup has two such apps, one for insomnia and one for anxiety, though neither are FDA cleared.

While a growing number companies are using technology to make it easier for patients to find therapists, his concern is that some people still might not be able to reach these services.

“The reality is that’s never going to scale anywhere near to the level of need,” he said. “I think everyone is looking the wrong way when it comes to mental healthcare. The majority of people with mental health conditions get nowhere near a therapist and candidly never will.”

Ginger, which is merging with meditation app Headspace, sees value in both approaches. While Ginger had a platform that let people chat with coaches, or see a therapist over video, it merged with Headspace to help people further “upstream,” CEO Russell Glass said.

“We recognized we were solving part of the problem,” he said. “But if you really want to solve this at a global scale, you have to have far more people thinking about prevention way earlier in the mental health journey.”

Even with their different perspectives, they all agreed on one thing: the need for evidence behind any approach. Kristian Ranta, CEO of Meru Health, went so far as to advocate for outcomes-based payment models.

“We have to move more into outcomes-based models, actually paying for real results,” he said. “That’s something that I challenge — it’s not only about us here, it’s about payers, it’s about the whole industry, how do we make these kinds of payment models possible?”

Meru, which bundles together therapy with several other services, including peer support, meditation, sleep and nutrition coaching, has struck some completely outcomes-based payment models, he added.

Photo credit: Venimo, Getty Images

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