Using technology to improve care

Patients increasingly appreciate access to online psychotherapy, virtual visits

For the many Canadians diagnosed with a mental illness, help may be right at their fingertips with online psychotherapy. It’s just one of the ways the health-care industry is leveraging technology to treat psychological disorders.

In today’s digital world, smartphone apps, computer bots, internet portals, web-based support groups and telehealth can all help people connect with mental health specialists, cope with their symptoms, access self-care tools and manage their medications.

Leading cause of disability

The need to start thinking differently about mental illness has never been greater. It’s now the leading cause of long-term disability in Canada, accounting for almost 30 per cent of all claims in 2017, according to the RGA Group’s Disability Claims Management Benchmarks survey.

That’s having a growing impact on Canadian workplaces, with many employees calling in sick each week because of stress, anxiety or depression. Left unmanaged, these issues can lead to even higher levels of absenteeism, lower employee engagement, and reduced productivity rates — not to mention increased spends for drugs, psychological counselling and disability management.

Absenteeism and presenteeism cost the economy $56 billion in lost productivity, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. In fact, the Medaca Health Group estimates the associated costs of mental illness can consume up to 14 per cent of an organization’s net annual profits.

The health-care and health benefit industries are ready to help with novel solutions that take a holistic, collaborative approach to prevention and treatment.

A great example is a pilot project by Medavie Blue Cross, in partnership with Medaca, to deliver online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Through this project, disability case managers assess whether the existing supports are appropriate for the employee’s condition and circumstances. The employee can then access the services of Medaca’s network of online CBT resources.

“Think of it as Skype on steroids,” says Travis Kelly, director of group disability management operations at Medavie in Toronto.

The technology is compliant with strict privacy obligations and connections are encrypted, while also being readily accessible from the comfort of the employee’s home.

“Whether they are rural or urban, they can get this technology and the support they need,” he says.

Importantly, the service integrates drug and psychological therapies to ensure the best treatment possible for the patient.

With this fully integrated early-intervention service, “a psychiatrist is taking the lead and integrating the pharmacy treatment with the behavioural therapy,” says Travis.

Removing barriers

The service reflects the expectations of today’s employees: Among young adults aged 18 to 34, 47 per cent would opt for at least half of their medical visits to be virtual, according to a Canadian Medical Association survey released in August.

Overall, seven in 10 respondents said they would take advantage of virtual physician visits, with many believing these visits would lead to more timely and better care. Roughly 70 per cent of respondents agreed that incorporating more technology into personal health care could prevent illnesses.

Digital innovations, together with AI, have the potential to transform the mental health landscape. Consider pharmacogenetics, the study of how genes affect a person’s response to drugs. This relatively new field combines pharmacology and genomics to develop effective and safe medication dosages that are specific to an individual’s DNA makeup.

The broad implications of pharmacogenetics are significant for all patients, including those with mental illness.

The laser-sharp accuracy of information gleaned from genetic testing can help with the selection of current and future drug therapies and drug doses that will achieve the desired therapeutic effect, while reducing the likelihood of adverse side effects. In short, employees will receive the right treatment at the right time — and at the right price for employers.

Marc Avaria is vice-president of life and disability management at Medavie Blue Cross in Toronto. For more information, visit

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