Health IT holds promise for post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers

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Christina Caraballo, MBA, Senior Healthcare Strategist, Get Real Health

Every day, 22 veterans take their lives due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The stats don’t lie. We’re facing an epidemic. While PTSD is starting to get a lot more attention, estimating the exact  number of veterans suffering from PTSD is an arduous task, and many cases go undetected, unreported and untreated for prolonged periods. The stigma around mental health makes seeking treatment even harder, which only compounds the problem.

As a health IT professional and volunteer for a nonprofit supporting veterans, seeing the effects of PTSD made me ponder how the health IT community can better serve our veterans with the tools that we develop and advocate for on a daily basis.

Several reasons why veterans who suffer with mental health issues don’t seek treatment include the stigma over seeming weak, being treated differently, and access to resources. Yet, I believe, with the advent of portable technology and mobile apps, these issues can be eased.

Using health IT in the mental health space has been controversial for a myriad of reasons. Concerns around matters such as sensitive data and unintended consequences of sharing this data is an example. “Some areas of thought suggest that offering patients their mental health information is an inhibitor for the right treatment, suggesting that ‘sick’ patients don’t want to know they’re sick.  On the other side, liberating information can help a learning healthcare system, including their patients, respond more quickly to needs of the patients, community, and system,” states Jason McNamara, co-founder of Squad Leaders, the nonprofit mentioned above.

In speaking with McNamara and Squad Leaders co-founder, Ben Thompson, both veterans and both fellow health IT professionals, one point we all agree on is that technology is best suited as an underpin to helping those who suffer from PTSD. Squad Leaders pairs veterans that have successfully transitioned back into their community with a mentee veteran who needs extra support as they re-enter civilian life. Thompson and McNamara have seen several veterans with PTSD come through the program, and said, “We’ve had several cases where veterans have come to us suicidal, homeless, or as severe drug users. The emails and cries for help that we receive on a regular basis will keep any one person awake at night.”

How can we better leverage technology to address these needs and begin getting help and caring for veterans suffering from PTSD?

Despite the lag in adoption of health IT in mental health, specifically consumer-facing technology, the value that it brings to the table is pushing the industry to break down the barriers. Meeting individually with service men and women is a major step to recovery, but the complexity of PTSD makes it a challenge to address in a clinical setting alone. Constant support and evaluation is a key factor to recovery. Health IT offers a less invasive approach for veterans seeking mental health treatment. In a nonjudgmental outlet, veterans can explore tools and educational resources that don’t require a direct human touch when stigma and location obstacles exist.

Consumer health IT tools — including patient portals with online assessments, surveys, and questionnaires, health journals to track things like mood and sleep patterns — can give PTSD sufferers a means to self-manage when day-to-day outside care becomes difficult. Responses to medications or treatment changes as well as alerts triggered when a reading or health journal response is out of range, can be sent to a veteran’s care team, including family members and others in their support network. These tools can be powerful, both for crisis intervention and to better understand triggers and patterns that cause PTSD to take hold.

“Technology allows clinical and community staff the ability to capture, analyze and share data,” said McNamara. Striking that balance between self-monitoring and professional intervention is critical in the mental health arena. Creating an environment that enables bi-directional data flow is often a gap in treating mental health, and valuable information is lost in between visits. The use of patient-generated data in conjunction with clinical data, is part of the overall shift in treatment methods in the medical profession.

As we begin to work with this those suffering from PTSD, it is important to customize the tools to meet their particular needs. In speaking with veterans, I’ve learned that PTSD is something you are not necessarily “cured” from, but rather something you learn to live with. McNamara summed it up best when he said, “That’s not a bad or good thing — it’s just a new sense of normal.” Thinking about PTSD in that light, I want to challenge the health IT community to get innovative, creative, and take on this challenge to demonstrate how we can use technology to help our veterans manage the day-to-day and know that support is a click away.

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