Conference Coverage

Smartphone interventions benefit schizophrenia patients

Mobile devices viewed as a unique opportunity



ORLANDO – Smartphones offer a way to give people with schizophrenia access to immediate medical guidance in times of need and clinicians a convenient way to check in with patients, an expert said at the annual congress of the Schizophrenia International Research Society.

Dr. Dror Ben-Zeev, University of Washington, Seattle

Dr. Dror Ben-Zeev

Dror Ben-Zeev, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, said that, despite the many differences in the habits and experiences of people with schizophrenia, there do not appear to be many differences in the way they use mobile technology, compared with the general population.

Even as far back as 2012, when smartphone technology was much less widely adopted, and he and his colleagues conducted a survey of patients in the Chicago area, 63% of schizophrenia patients said they had a mobile device. Ninety percent of them said they used the device to talk, one-third used it for text messaging, and 13% used it to browse the Internet.

More recently, a meta-analysis of 15 studies, published in 2016, found that, among those with psychotic disorders who were surveyed since 2014, 81% owned a mobile device. A majority said they favored using mobile technology for contact with medical services and for supporting self-management (Schizophr Bull. 2016 Mar;42[2]:448-55).

“Do they own phones? Do they use phones? Absolutely, they do,” Dr. Ben-Zeev said. “And in a surprising way, it might be one of the areas where the gap between psychotic illness and the general population is close to nonexistent.”

FOCUS, a smartphone app designed for easy use by patients to allow them to quickly cope with symptoms and to allow clinicians to ask how they’re doing, has helped to improve patient symptoms, Dr. Ben-Zeev said. Patients receive three daily prompts to check in with the app, which offers a chance to report symptoms. It also offers “on-demand” resources 24 hours a day for help with handling voices, social challenges, medications, sleep issues, and mood difficulties.

When patients report hearing voices, for instance, they are asked to describe them in multiple choice fashion, including an option to supply their own description. If a patient reports that, for example, the voices “know everything,” the app asks them to think of a time when the voices were sure something would happen, but it didn’t. The app also offers videos in which therapists give advice to help patients with symptoms.

In a 30-day trial, participants used the FOCUS app an average of five times a day in the previous week, and 63% of the uses were participant initiated rather than app initiated. Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale scores (77.6 vs. 71.5; P less than .001) and depression scores (19.7 vs. 13.9; P less than .01) were both significantly improved after the trial, compared with before (Schizophr Bull. 2014 Nov;40[6]:1244-53).

Meanwhile, a 3-month randomized, controlled trial comparing the FOCUS intervention with Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), a clinic-based group intervention, had what Dr. Ben-Zeev referred in an interview as “very compelling findings” (Psychiatr Serv. 2018 Sep 1;69[9]:978-85). That study, lead by Dr. Ben-Zeev and his colleagues, found that participants with serious mental illness who were assigned to FOCUS were more likely than those assigned to WRAP to begin treatment (90% vs. 58%) and to remain fully engaged in care over an 8-week period.

Researchers are also exploring the benefits of a program called CrossCheck, in which patients’ use of smartphones relays information that could predict a psychosis relapse (Psychiatr Rehab J. 2017 Sep;40[3]:266-75). For instance, use in the middle of the night indicates sleeping difficulties, and location data could indicate a change in residence. Both are warning signs of a possible impending relapse.

“There is a unique opportunity,” Dr. Ben-Zeev said, “to leverage this status to try to improve what we do.”

Dr. Ben-Zeev also is codirector of the university’s Behavioral Research in Technology and Engineering Center and director of the mHealth for Mental Health Program, a research collaborative that focuses on developing, evaluating, and implementing mobile technologies. Dr. Ben-Zeev has a licensing and consulting agreement with Pear Therapeutics and a consulting agreement with eQuility.

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