Digital biomarkers are the new ‘digital divide’ for the mental health app industry

hands coffee smartphone
Access to mental health apps is no longer a concern. Now researchers are focused on identifying useful digital biomarkers.

Smartphones and health apps are emerging as a new and potentially beneficial resource for those with mental health conditions. But so far, little is understood about how that data can guide treatment.

Mobile apps addressing mental health conditions are still in their infancy, but many see the information that is collected through those apps as a new resource for clinicians to better understand various disease states. While access to mobile apps focusing on mental health is no longer a concern, the digital biomarkers collected through those apps offer a new “digital divide,” researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School wrote in the journal Digital Biomarkers.

A key barrier to more rigorous evaluation of digital biomarkers is usability among mobile apps, which is a common concern among clinicians and researchers. Instead of focusing on the technology itself, the authors argue that more attention needs to be devoted to how patients use mental health apps in order to ultimately determine which data points are particularly valuable.

RELATED: Valuable mental health apps lost in a sea of untrustworthy digital solutions

“The first step in developing digital biomarkers for advancing mental health research and treatment is to understand the needs of patients,” the authors wrote. “Potential next steps include developing more ecological and anthropological research as well as addressing the lack of usability, trust, and evidence which plagues many apps.”

Trust has been a critical issue for physicians, particularly as a growing number of studies show data from wearables and smartphones is unreliable or ineffective.

RELATED: AHIP 2017—Eric Topol runs through the cost-cutting technologies that fit in the palm of a patient's hand

Still, industry leaders say the potential for mobile health technology is there. Last week at the annual meeting of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), Eric Topol, M.D., director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute and a professor of genomics at The Scripps Research Institute, pointed to several mobile innovations that he believes will change the way patients receive medical care.