UNC ties up with Google to launch mental health app for front-line workers

ER doctor Sam McLean understands the intense pressures facing front-line healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Working on a COVID unit, McLean himself contracted coronavirus and, unfortunately, infected two of his family members.

“First responders and healthcare workers are facing a lot of challenges right now. There is the personal risk of severe illness or death. Much worse, there is the anxiety and fear of infecting loved ones," McLean said.

This an even greater challenge for first responders or health workers who live with someone particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

McLean, an attending physician in anesthesiology and emergency medicine at UNC Health, saw a need for more digital tools to help support front-line healthcare workers' mental health.

"It’s important to give first responders and healthcare workers a simple, quick way to regularly check in on their mental health and immediately find resources. It is also important to provide organizations with tools that help empower them to care for each other," he said in a statement.

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McLean worked with researchers from other organizations, including Ron Kessler, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard Medical School, to develop a brief smartphone-based assessment focused on key issues affecting COVID workers, including sleep, stress, anxiety, and sadness and depressive symptoms.

Heroes Health app (UNC Health)

UNC School of Medicine also teamed up with software engineers at Google Cloud and volunteers from across Alphabet’s moonshot factory called 'X', and Boston Technology Corporation to roll out the tool in record time, the organizations said.

The initiative also is supported by donors including mental health nonprofit One Mind, the Rockefeller Foundation, Bank of America Foundation, Lauder Foundation, and individuals.

The Heroes Health app, which is available in both the Google Play Store and App Store, is a free tool for U.S. first responders and healthcare workers to help keep track of their mental health and connect to available resources.

For healthcare workers, the app delivers weekly 5- to 10-minute mental health self-assessments and displays symptom summary reports and trends over time. It also provides links to immediate support and mental health resources, emphasizing services that are free or low-cost to healthcare workers.

The Heroes Health app can help hospitals and health systems perform proactive worker outreach and also provides aggregate data necessary to identify times or specific units where more worker support is needed.

Many hospitals are “flying blind” when it comes to understanding the mental health status of workers in different parts of their organization, UNC officials said.

Front-line workers also have the option to confidentially share their mental health summaries with an organizational mental health worker. 

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“Healthcare workers are working long hours in highly contagious environments, often without adequate safety equipment, and are expected to make life-saving decisions while deprioritizing their own health and the health of their families,” said Brandon Staglin, One Mind president in a statement.

The Heroes Health app will provide mental health support for our front-line caregivers and is an important demonstration of how private sector innovation is essential in the response to the pandemic, Staglin said.

The Heroes Health app is operated by UNC School of Medicine, and neither Google nor any Alphabet subsidiary has access to any data from the app/Heroes Health program, the organization said.