Healthcare is becoming more and more digitized. For the mental health niche, this might be happening quicker than for others. Mental health support is one of the easiest directions to move online. Many studies showed that therapy is still effective when done through video communication, and this way it is also more affordable, easier, and more convenient for everyone involved. Online means that therapy can be available morning, day, evening or night, and even on weekends, and no one has to go anywhere. The latter is especially important, because getting to the medical facilities can be a serious challenge for people with mental health problems (for example, for severely depressed). Getting to the hospitals has also been close to impossible in the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we can’t vouch that a similar situation won’t happen again. However, it is also important to point out that for some conditions it may be better to visit the therapist in person. This includes suicide thoughts, self-harm and harm to others. For these cases, there are national suicide prevention lines in most countries.
The fact that many clinics introduced online therapy led to the emergence of online support platforms. In this article, we’ll talk about such platforms. Medical software development isn’t a piece of cake ― there is a lot to consider. We’ll go through how platforms for mental health online support should look like: which features they should have to appeal to the users, how they can ensure smooth communication, and how they can do more to speed up the progress. So let’s see what healthcare developers can do.
What should a perfect online support platform look like?
Mental health online support platform for clinics should have three main goals:
- Ensure easy signup, payment, booking, scheduling, and smooth communication;
- Provide an opportunity to order electronic prescriptions;
- Provide an opportunity for online therapy homework: journals, worksheets, etc.
Additional goals can include:
- Providing the space for online community;
- Providing educational materials;
- Introducing an online self-help course .
Now let’s go through each of these points one by one and see what a perfect platform could have.
Necessary features for a mental health online support platform:
First things first, every new user has to sign up to use the service. This should be an easy process. For people with mental health problems every additional little thing could be a challenge they have to overcome. They also might be more paranoid than your usual user. So make sure the first step is short, simple, and not too invasive.
If your clinic offers couples therapy, you’ll need an option of a joined account. A couple should be able to share information about both of them and book both individual and joined sessions from a single account.
Your platform may offer to pay for single video sessions or offer a range of subscriptions with flexible payment options. This usually means monthly payments. As many clinics accept medical insurance, a platform should also have a feature that allows the user to pay via their insurance provider.
Booking & scheduling
A platform can have several booking options. The first one would be to redirect the user to the selection of psychiatrists and therapists and allow them to book the one they like. Another would be asking the user to first complete a questionnaire specifying the problems he or she faces, and then offer suitable therapists to choose from. BetterHelp, an online portal that provides direct-to-consumer access to mental health services, goes even further: after the user completes a questionnaire, a computer program matches them with a therapist for their specific needs.
While booking the therapist, the user has to see their timetable and be able to book for the times convenient to them. If the platform chose a subscription model, it should allow booking multiple sessions for a month ahead.
Live therapy sessions online usually happen via video communication platforms such as Zoom or Skype. Having one or several video communication tools integrated with the platform is a great way to ensure smooth communication.
Just like in brick-and-mortar clinics, psychiatrists should be able to prescribe medications to their patients. With online platforms, the best way to do that is to use electronic prescriptions. Psychiatrists should be able to order electronic prescriptions via the platform.
Now we’ve moved to the platform features that should be of use in-between the video sessions. A rare therapy consists of one-on-one sessions only. Usually, patients have homework, such as having to write a journal where they track their feelings and emotions, or writing a gratification journal, where they have to point out what they are grateful for every night before going to sleep, or having to fill out worksheets. All of this can be done on the platform ― a simple online journal with a number of templates will do the trick. This way, homework can be easily shared with the therapist and can even be more fun to do.
A platform should allow users to leave feedback. This will make it easier for other patients to choose the therapists to work with, as well as for the clinic to see how popular or unpopular a therapist is. Make sure to anonymize the process for obvious reasons.
Privacy and security
Data security is vital when it comes to mental health online support as the information people share with the platform is extremely sensitive. This seems obvious, however, there are cases when clinics forget “the first principles of cybersecurity”. Records should be anonymized and encrypted, and there should be an opportunity for the user to set up the two-step identification process.
Desirable features for a mental health online support platform
A great platform will have much more than the features we’ve talked about before. Let’s go through the features that will make it as useful, convenient, and effective as possible.
While every one of us feels lonely sometimes, for people with mental health problems this issue is much greater. Sometimes, it can happen that literally no one around them can understand them and what they are going through. So some mental health clinics, such as, for example, 7 Cups, offer chat rooms so that people can share their experiences, talk, and find support 24/7. As the user of Kooth, an online mental health wellbeing community, said “I really like how you can share your problems anonymously and have help from others. It makes me feel accepted and that people will not judge me.”
Adding chat rooms or discussion boards with various topics could be a fruitful addition to any online mental health support platform. Again, make sure it is anonymous.
Sometimes, people would rather not talk to other real people about their problems. However, they would still want to share what’s on their chest and get some advice. The solution is chatbots. Mental health support chatbots, such as Woebot, Wysa, and Pacfica exist as separate tools right now. Integrating them with the platform or building a chatbot specifically for the clinic’s platform could be a lifesaver for many patients.
Sure, you can find everything there is about mental health problems on the Internet. However, having educational materials about different mental health issues that are written or aggregated by the clinic’s staff and posted on their platform is better for the patients. In this case, the information is structured and evidence-based, as opposed to what you have on the Internet. There, you can find anything, and not all of it will be true, to put it mildly. Besides, the clinic can design educational materials in a form that is better for them and for the patients.
Lifestyle and wellbeing support
Almost every person struggling with mental health could benefit from lifestyle change and wellbeing support. Creating a space that provides tips for how to start exercising, eat healthier, consume less alcohol and nicotine, and practice mindfulness could be another positive addition to your platform.
An online self-help course
Many clinics, even the UK’s NHS, offer online self-help courses. They can be helpful for some patients, but for many, they are a step to take before starting with one-on-one therapy. On a clinic’s platform, an online self-help course can act as a “free option” that most SaaS products have, but it can also add to the live therapy if the patient chooses to combine both.
Mostly, online self-help courses use cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Not only is this one of the most evidence-based therapy methods, it’s also the easiest to move online. So much so that it’s sometimes referred to as computerised cognitive behavior therapy (CCBT). An online self-help course usually consists of a range of online exercises that the patient has to complete within several months. It obviously lacks many factors that live therapy has, so don’t worry ― an online self-help course won’t take away your clients. It will most likely attract more.
Mental health online support doesn’t have to be a necessary measure we take because the clinic doesn’t want to spend more money, doesn’t have the facilities, or the global pandemic has made it extremely dangerous to enter one.
It can be an opportunity to provide 24/7 help and support, get better feedback, and organize the kind of support you could not have organized offline. Medical software development could take mental health support to a whole new level. A perfect web platform is an important step in perfecting mental health online support and making sure it reaches its goals: helps those struggling with mental health, teaches them coping skills, and improves their lives for the better.
Author: Alina Gorbatch, a web marketer with MSc in Clinical and Health Psychology.