Optimizing the potential of digital technology for mental health Optimizing the potential of digital technology for mental health
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Optimizing the potential of digital technology for mental health

Technology is transforming every part of our lives - changing the way we shop, travel, watch television and more. Healthcare is no exception, and the pace of change is only going to accelerate – driven by IoT, mobile, artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies.

With a wave of emerging technologies, it begs the question - what does the future of digital healthcare look like? How will it impact today's practitioners, hospitals, health systems, and more importantly patients? And how can organisations navigate the potential risks, pitfalls and roadblocks in order to harness technology effectively to create a better healthcare system for all?

We set out to explore these critical questions and more through the Luminaries series of interviews, talking to some of the titans, mavericks and influencers changing healthcare today. Throughout this series, Colette Balaam, CEO of our Kin + Carta partner agency Hive, asks the difficult questions to discover what makes these luminaries tick.

“We want to go beyond what we’re already doing to create new tools and services that will help people achieve mental wellbeing throughout their life or whatever journey they are on.”

Giles Alexander - Chief Technical Officer, XenZone

Colette Balaam: Can you tell me a little bit more about your role and your current objectives and goals for improving the healthcare experience?

Giles Alexander: Yes. I’m currently chief technology officer of XenZone, a company that’s been around for almost two decades. Through most of that period, our focus has been on providing high quality, affordable mental health care. However, over the past few years, we realized we needed to become a health technology company in addition to a healthcare provider.

I was brought on to help drive this transition from improving operations to improving technology and product development across all or our core service areas. The ultimate goal is to become a world leader in mental health care service and use technology to create new ways for people to access and receive mental health support and treatment.

CB: I imagine it’s been a pretty exciting time at XenZone. Can you explain more about what drove this ambition and business transformation?

SB: We have been operating an online service for children and young adults across England for 15 years, which allows us to provide early intervention in mental health care as an early response support service. Our programs help kids and young adults deal with the challenges and difficulties they may be facing in life and help address them before they become more serious.

In many cases, we work with people struggling with gender, sexual identity, or bullying or racial issues and often times, these people don’t have anywhere to go, or they face the stigma about mental health in general.

One challenge we face is that we don’t reach as many people as we feel we should. We know there are many other groups of people who also struggle with a wide range of issues, but may find counseling and talking to a therapist intimidating. Still, we feel they also have a right, and we have an obligation to help them improve their mental wellbeing. We want to go beyond what we’re already doing to create new tools and services that will help people achieve mental wellbeing throughout their life or whatever journey they are on.


CB: Sounds like you have a lot of opportunities there. Looking ahead a bit, what will the experience of interacting with XenZone look like five years from now? Where do you see the biggest changes?

GA: Right now a person using our service is likely a child or a young person. We do serve adults, but children and young people are our predominant users and I expect this will not change too much over time. In five years, we expect our users to see more of their journey― the things they are working on and the improvements they are making with the support of the XenZone team.

More specifically, the addition of assessment tools, a library of exercises and programs to support the individual’s progress, and a community of people including dedicated mentors and others they are helping/influencing. They will also be able to bring in other information about themselves, to get a more holistic picture of their own mental wellbeing.

We will be leveraging technology for more convenient and flexible access, particularly mobile applications that enable easy check-ins, progress tracking, and tips and guidance for ongoing health improvements. Intelligent tools will provide greater insight into trends, strengths, and weaknesses, giving service users the ability to constantly work on their wellbeing, with services structured and delivered in an efficient and desirable way.


CB: Speaking of that, in today’s hyper-technology environment, we talk quite a bit about digital transformation and the potential opportunities it offers across all industry sectors. What do you think are the biggest challenges, and the biggest areas of opportunity for the healthcare industry in today’s digital age?

GA: I was hoping you’d ask a question like this―I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot. I believe the insights available from big data, and the sudden availability of all this insight, right down to the level of an individual, hasn’t fully begun to play out in healthcare yet. Over the next five years or so I believe we’re going to see it rapidly evolve.

Another major shift I believe will happen is a move from purchasing healthcare services based on access, to a revenue-oriented model based on outcomes. Those outcomes will have to be backed up by evidence, and that evidence will have to be of very high quality.

This means many healthcare providers, especially digital ones, are going to have to figure out how to run randomized clinical trials, which will present a number of logistical and financial challenges. I think we’ve dodged the bullet so far of having healthcare being available and not available based on your family history or your genes, and though it hasn’t happened yet, it seems inevitable at some point. With future healthcare availability and medical cost based on your past conditions, it is going to push the market towards early intervention programs and demonstrated outcomes. The goal, of course, is to help minimize treatment costs and lower risks to those patients susceptible to potential conditions.

As a result, health care users are going to want the ability to purchase services built on that type of predictable intelligence. So for individuals where we know what they might be at a certain risk, we have these early intervention programs, combined with high-quality data and evidence, which will help mitigate certain risk factors. Since early intervention is clearly far less costly than late intervention, I think what we’re going to see is big data playing an increasingly vital role in enabling this kind of model― and that’s not something we’ve been able to do historically.

CB: That’s really interesting to hear. Within the context of what you just discussed, what [digital] technology do you believe will have the greatest impact on healthcare within the next three years?

GA: I think we’re going to see a resurgence of some old technology and other more structural and explainable AI technologies. Obviously, machine learning is going to be a big part of it. Over the next five years, I expect machine learning algorithms will continue to be perfected. So while it’s going to be an important part of what we’ll be doing, it’s only going to be one component of our long-term strategy.

I think some wearable devices and potentially the Internet of Things and general data engineering and processing are going to be a big deal, which is going to be taking a lot more data down to a very personal level, and we’re going to be trying to understand what that means, in terms of the effectiveness of healthcare services.


CB: Knowing the inevitable emergence of new technologies and marrying of old and new, can you let us know how you identify what is ‘just a fad’ and what could potentially make a lasting impact?

GA: That’s a tricky one, how do you know if there truly is something ‘there’? I personally try to take an open-minded view of technology to understand, not just what it is and how it works, but what it gives you.

Blockchain is a good example. You have to really sit down and think about what it does, what is it good for? Once you understand this fundamentally, then you can start to say, “Well okay, who cares about the non-repudiation features of a distributed ledger like blockchain?”

That’s how I try to approach new tech, “What does it do, what does it change? Am I interested in the goal it allows me to reach?” And then from there, I try to understand from a business perspective if it is something that I can invest in to elevate my performance or improve the bottom line. And that’s going to affect how I structure my investment towards it.

CB: It’s interesting to hear your take on defining a proper use case for digital technology, to truly meet and address a need, it’s so important when we talk about people.

GA: Yes, that’s a good point. In any discussion of technology it always comes back to the question of people, particularly in a market you're working in. You’ve got to really think of the people all the time, you’ve got to understand the things you’re looking at, there’s a person there. They may look like they are just a phone call or number but actually you’re seeing a human through your engagement channel and you’ve got to make sure that you bear that in mind―you can’t just shuffle these things around and then have some result and the, “Oh we’ll miss a few.” No, that’s not acceptable. In our case, these are young people in need, who could significantly benefit from our care.

“You’ve got to really think of the people all the time, you’ve got to understand the things you’re looking at, there’s a person there.”

CB: One final question, which is a bit more personal in nature: “What would you like your long-term contribution to be, in terms of improving the healthcare ecosystem?

GA: I would love to be involved in the shift in how healthcare is purchased and delivered. It’s going to really change people’s lives. People will suddenly be a lot healthier for a lot longer. They’ll have care that is tuned to their needs rather than being forced into a journey that is an approximation (aka we decided you are this kind of person at this stage of your health). If you can have a wide variety of early intervention healthcare services that are demonstrated to actually work, then there’s enormous potential for improvement in healthcare in general and overall quality of life.

From where I’m sitting, that looks like a thing that I can do, and I can participate in. Fortunately, we already have a good foundation in place, so I think it’s definitely achievable.

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