By Olivia R. Weidner, DHIT Global Intern | Oct 12, 2020
On Friday, October 9th, 2020, the Digital Health Institute for Transformation (DHIT) kicked off Season 3 of the DHIT Frequency: “Cross-Border Synergy.”. This season, DHIT is proud to be partnering with the government of Québec and the Hospital Center of University of Montreal (CHUM) in producing this webinar series. This collaboration will bring a broader, cross-border scope to the meaningful conversations surrounding digital health technologies.
Season 3’s lineup will include five episodes, which will occur biweekly. As COVID-19 continues to influence every aspect of our world, this virtual series seeks to maintain and strengthen connections across the global digital health community. From October 9th to December 4th, the DHIT Frequency will host executives and thought leaders from across healthcare, life sciences, social sciences, technology, and innovation to discuss the advances, opportunities, challenges, and barriers to digital health across the United States and Canada.
Each segment will be co-hosted by DHIT’s President, Michael Levy, and Kathy Malas, Associate CEO of Innovation and AI at the Hospital Center of University of Montreal (CHUM). The series will spotlight distinguished guests from across the ecosystem to discuss the state of digital health. Last week’s panelists included:
- Marina Massingham, CEO, Aifred Health (Canada)
- Jeffrey Cary, CEO, Lifespan Digital Health (United States)
- Isabelle Desjardins, Chief Medical Officer, University of Vermont Medical Center (United States)
The first installment of Season 3 of the DHIT Frequency took place during Mental Health Awareness Week, which spans from October 4th to October 10th. The focus of last week’s episode was fitting; the webinar centered on the topic of mental health in the digital age. In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on mental well-being, as the world collectively faces this crisis. Across the globe, individuals and societies have been forced to grapple with mortality, isolation, and the unknown; human resilience has been tested. In the current moment and beyond, the consequences of mental illness are important to consider. As co-host Kathy Malas reminded our audience, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Physical and mental health are inevitably intertwined; a holistic view of well-being would be incomplete without considering both. This first webinar explored the challenges and opportunities involved in digital mental healthcare delivery today.
Friday’s panel included three distinguished guests, each occupying a different role in the mental health field. Dr. Isabelle Desjardins serves as Chief Medical Officer at the University of Vermont, which is an inpatient and outpatient psychiatric center. Jeffrey Cary, CEO of Lifespan Digital Health, works on providing personalized and measurement-based mental health tools and services to the communities that lack access to them. Finally, Marina Massingham serves as CEO of Aifred Health in Canada, where she and her team utilize AI to tailor individual treatment approaches.
The conversation began by asking panelists about current challenges in the mental health field in order to establish a sense of where we are now. According to Massingham, a major barrier to effective treatment administration is a lack of individualized approaches:
“The challenges of treatment selection go beyond mental illness into other aspects of health more generally. What we’re trying to tackle is a really big problem of personalizing treatment selection. Understanding the variables that drive individual response to specific treatments available today is a major issue.”
While first-line treatments for mental illnesses like depression are pretty much equally effective at the population level, this does not apply at the level of the individual. What works for one person with depression won’t necessarily work for another. At this point in time, patients are commonly met with a trial-and-error approach to therapeutics, which means that there is often an extended period before remission. Massingham experienced this phenomenon firsthand with a close family member, and she is motivated to use her work at Aifred to create change.
In the eyes of Dr. Desjardins, the primary issue is a lack of accountability and organized efforts at the system level:
“What I’m seeing, from the chair I sit in, is that there is a lot of talk about mental health issues, but very little meaningful progress. There is little progress in advancing the real, hardcore outcomes, and things are getting worse. There are a lot of dissipated activities that are not unified, and there is a bit of learned helplessness in the system. There’s absolutely no accountability placed on leaders like me to deliver on improvements of outcomes in mental health. If it doesn’t start at the top, it’s never going to happen, and I think that’s one of the key elements of the disconnect that we’re seeing. There’s a lot of talk, a lot of energy, but there’s no organized, framed accountability in the system to make things better.”
As Medical Director of the Seneca Center, Dr. Desjardins feels that she and other high-level executives like herself need to be held responsible for the outcomes of patients in the system. Moreover, she sees promise in unifying efforts to improve care. Despite the existence of numerous activities and approaches that seek to enhance patient care, a centralized voice is missing. Putting more responsibility on the leaders overseeing large healthcare systems may work to remedy this problem, creating cohesive directives to guide care.
Much like Desjardins, Cary sees the core issue as existing at the macro-level. For Cary, unequal access to care stands out as his primary concern. Within marginalized communities of minority background or low socioeconomic status, mental health resources are scarce or inaccessible:
“Marginalized, underserved communities lack sufficient access to the care that they so desperately need. They should have access to this care, regardless of their socioeconomic lot in life. It’s unacceptable to me that many of the minority and underserved communities are viewed as simply collateral damage.”
If individuals and leaders seek to create meaningful change, whether in mental health or any other domain, this change must reach every segment of the population. Cary’s work as CEO of Lifespan Digital Health seeks to disrupt the curve of healthcare as we know it today by creating useful, accessible tools for improving the mental well-being of all.