It is a daunting task for mental health providers to stay abreast with the current technology options available for mental health treatment. The past decade has seen the rise of multiple technology platforms with applications in mental health treatment (e.g., videoconferencing, mobile phones, web, patient-portals) along with specific interventions tailored to these platforms.
Traditional mechanisms for providers and mental health organizations, such as research papers and educational trainings, are unable to keep pace with both the technology available for providers and the technology being used by patients. How does a busy individual provider or mental health organization assess whether a technology is at a point to be considered a mainstream intervention and should be considered for routine use in clinical practice?
I proffer here the “middle caribou theory” for adapting “new” treatments and interventions. In a migrating caribou herd, animals leading the pack risk breaking through thin ice or getting pushed off unexpected cliffs by the masses behind them before the herd can institute a course correction. The caribou at the back of the herd are vulnerable to predation from wolves. The astute provider, like the caribou in the middle of the herd, has allowed others to test the path ahead and is less likely to be put at risk from antiquated methodologies found at the back of the herd.
There are now “base” technologies that every mental health provider and organization should be proficient in using and incorporating into clinical services where appropriate. These include email, videoconferencing, web-based technologies (e.g., patient education, patient portals) electronic medical records, and mobile phone-based applications. These are technologies that are relatively mature, and have reasonable track records in administrative and clinical psychiatry, in addition to growing or developed scientific literature supporting their use. “Emergent” technologies are those being deployed in clinical practice that have not reached widespread use and have underdeveloped literature and track records for their use. Examples of these include texting, virtual reality, and location technologies.1
Base vs. emergent technologies offer a framework for providers to determine which technologies they should be using in their practices. Often, it’s difficult to pinpoint when a technology has reached a “tipping point” into becoming a base/standard technology in the field and should be carefully considered by the middle caribou. Arguably, this occurs when a combination of a growing body of scientific evidence supporting a technology is coupled with wide adoption, although these two factors are not necessarily correlated. There are many examples in psychiatry of treatments coming into widespread practice with limited scientific support as well as scientifically robust treatments not being used in practice. Funding and reimbursement structures also play a role in facilitating and encouraging deployment and adoption of technology in mental health – and are not always driven by scientific best practices.
Finally, the temperament of individual providers and organizations determines when and how adoption might occur. Risk tolerance, novelty seeking, and capacity affect whether someone is an early or late adopter of an innovation.
Ultimately, clinical necessity drives the use of technologies in practice. Often, technology that has proved useful in other medical fields or in general use is translated into mental health, rather than being de novo developed for specific mental health treatments. This type of cross-pollination is not negative. Instead, it carries the risk of an initial “halo effect” where the promise of a technology used in other settings creates an unrealistic set of expectations about its potential in mental health treatments. This can lead to premature use and wider adoption that outpaces supporting scientific evidence.
So what should psychiatric providers and organizations consider in approaching these issues?
• Be proficient in base technologies, and stay up to date in their evolving uses and refinement.
• Stay informed about developing technologies, particularly those gaining broader use.
• Before considering adapting a new technology into clinical practice, make sure one is up to date on the scientific evidence supporting the technology. Providers should consider specialized training and orientation before piloting a new technology within a clinical setting.
• Take advantage of, and follow guidance of, reviews and best practices for assessing technology fit.
Dr. Shore chairs the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Telepsychiatry and is director of telemedicine at the Helen & Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora. He also serves as associate professor of psychiatry at the university.