Authored by Ashley Kwon, Human Development '26
Art by Sammie Lee, Health Care Policy '26
Would you trust technology with non-human treatments at home? The idea of incorporating technology into healthcare treatments can appear innovative to some individuals, yet be unsettling to others. Mental disorders are conventionally treated with two approaches: medication or therapy. The gradual increase and prevalence of patients with mental disorders due to social isolation combined with the COVID-19 outbreak sparked technological advancements in the mental healthcare industry . New technological medical approaches to treating disorders without seeing a doctor or therapist are a rapidly growing field. Digital treatments have been proposed to a number of patients in recent years, and while they seem to be effective, there has been growing controversy over the use of such technology. Two such examples include online therapy sessions and digital pills, whose effects must be thoroughly assessed to alleviate ethical and practical concerns and ensure that patients receive optimal care.
Online therapy sessions are one of the greatest developments in digital treatments for mental disorders. Internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) is currently the most well-researched digital technological intervention in mental health care . Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common form of therapy for mental disorders that aims to transform thinking and behavioral patterns by understanding one's cognitive processes and confronting them, such as by being exposed to a source of fear . Patients with severe depression, anxiety, or physical discomfort may find these virtual therapies or “teletherapies” to be more accessible . Artificial intelligence has been frequently used in digital therapy and diagnosis to predict and treat mental health issues. Customized health care and patient data analysis also offer virtual conversation assistants and sense patients’ activity levels to determine the most effective therapeutic intervention . If online therapies are as effective as face-to-face therapies, why not choose at-home sessions that may be easier and less of a hassle?
Another new digital mental health treatment is digital pills. Digital pills are simply pills, like antipsychotic drugs, that contain an extremely small sensor that acts as a “battery.” As it senses stomach acid, for instance, the sensor tracks drug ingestion and sends electrical signals accordingly. This allows patients to monitor their medication intake progress, including dosage and time. The pills can keep track of bodily location and even blood pressure, which is directed to a wearable sensor and a smartphone app that patients and healthcare providers both have access to . It truly seems easy to swallow a safe tracking device in the form of a pill. Applications of digital pills are also endless; what if we measured the release of certain neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers between nerve cells in the brain, to evaluate levels of depression? Could this help professionals diagnose patients’ psychological and physical health? But once again, we arrive at the question of how far we can push technology before harming the patients’ health and stability.
Despite the huge advantages and future applications, the use of technology for mental health care raises ethical and practical concerns. For example, examining neurotransmitter levels can be a profound advancement that can revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of a few mental disorders. However, it brings up highly sensitive issues with privacy and data management. Patients may feel they have more control over their clinical data, while others may be uncomfortable about being tracked when they have little knowledge of what data is collected . Complex legal matters involving unavoidable data exposure to third parties, like device developers, are additional barriers . Informed consent from the patients, perhaps notifying them of confidentiality issues, must be fully confirmed as well . A total absence of in-person interactions and therapy from heavy reliance on online treatments is still questionable for patients’ complete recovery. We cannot completely ignore the possibility of indoor digital treatments exacerbating disorders, mainly depression, due to a lack of exposure to the outside environment. In fact, there are no official standards for patients to choose the right smartphone app for online treatments, which makes it trickier for self-management at home . Practicing mental health training only via digital mediums without supervision is indeed a struggle . Therefore, deciding which treatment to use among digital and conventional methods is an endless challenge we face.
A proper balance between traditional and modern treatments for mental disorders must be further studied and practiced. This includes presenting a variety of treatment options, such as pure or digital drugs and behavioral or online therapy, for personalized care – solely relying on a single treatment may not bring about desirable outcomes. Future research should be conducted on developing a somewhat universal treatment plan that can lay the foundation for improved technology and ethics. Most importantly, we must always keep in mind that the absolute goal of employing technology in healthcare is to offer patients effective and convenient treatments for everyone’s well-being.
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