A New Road Taken: The Intersection of Health Care and Technology

Health Affairs copyBeacon Health Options’ new Oakland, CA office sits literally and figuratively at the intersection of health care and technology. To one side of our building stands Kaiser’s corporate headquarters. To the other side stand towers occupied by San Francisco’s spreading tech boom, including Uber’s new office. It’s a fitting metaphor for where Beacon stands as well – at a point of transition to a world where technology is an essential enabler of services.

Beacon, and the behavioral health space in general, is seeing many new ideas and digital innovations. Telemedicine and care coordination, two of the six categories that investor Rock Health identified as accounting for 50 percent of digital health investment in 2015, are closely tied to improving access to behavioral health services. Whether it is a simple SMS-based check-in and appointment reminder platform or a sophisticated web-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) course, technology is changing how members connect to and receive care.

The challenge for Beacon and companies like it is to envision the new continuum of care. Beacon is working with both internal resources and external partners to experiment and execute. There are three key areas where digital capabilities will allow us and our industry to evolve:

  • Therapies that meet and treat members where they are

Kate, a single working mom recently divorced with two school-aged children, uses her lunch time and workplace office to engage in therapy for depression.

Whether it is web-based programs that use the principles of CBT, telemedicine programs that allow facetime with a doctor, or apps that enable texting a therapist, more and more people are looking to get help when and where they need it. Beacon is exploring both asynchronous and synchronous approaches that comfortably connect members to the care they need. Our pilot with IESO, a United Kingdom-based company that provides a platform for CBT, is allowing us to learn how these programs fit into our continuum of care. We also have several telehealth programs, including our physician-consult programs in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Colorado.

  • Mobile tools for monitoring, engagement, and self-management

Ron, an outpatient therapist, provides each new client with an iPad-based brief symptom survey while in the waiting room before his/her first session.

Companies that transform the tried-and-true tools of therapy – surveys, reminders, diaries and homework – through the use of technology, are one of the fastest-growing categories of mental health start-ups. For these types of apps or platforms, it is important to understand how the target population uses technology before choosing the tool. A younger, smartphone savvy population is a good fit for a meditation app or tracking tool, while research suggests that low-income populations are not as successful adopting web-based technology. Starting with a survey solution using iPads in community mental health centers to collect data directly from our members, as we are doing with our Polaris pilot, is one way for us to understand which tools work for which members.

  • Improving the engine underneath the hood

Fran, a care manager supporting a caseload of 75 individuals with severe mental illness, relies on a daily report from the analytic system that alerts her about members who may have stopped taking their medications.

The idea of “population health” is one of digital health’s buzzwords – and one that is often hard to define. For Beacon, population health means building robust analytical tools that help us identify trends at a macro level and translate that insight to improved individual care. Strengthening our IT systems with algorithms and analysis is important as we seek to match our members to the right level care at the right time. It is also important as we seek to understand our members’ adherence to treatment. Our Psychotropic Drug Interventions Program (PDIP) is one example of how we use algorithms across multiple data sets to identify medication-related problems.

The location of Beacon’s Oakland office at the intersection of health care and technology may be just a metaphor, but it portends revolutionary change to come – for Beacon, the industry in general, and the people we serve. Indeed, the three areas described above are just the starting point for how digital technology will enable better care.

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