In today’s unequal world, digital therapeutics (DTx) cannot be a panacea for the mental health crisis. Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated innovation in DTx, its success in treating patients with mental health disorders is dependent on whether platforms are accessible, affordable and integrated into wider healthcare systems.

Covid-19 has accelerated the global mental health crisis

Mental health disorders commonly spike during times of stress, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, as society feels vulnerable to health concerns, job loss, pay cuts, isolation and uncertainty. According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, around four in ten adults in the US have reported anxiety or depression symptoms during the pandemic, an increase from one in ten in 2019.

In fact, GlobalData estimates that the prevalence of major depressive disorder (MDD) will increase further after the pandemic to more than 55.4 million people across the eight major pharmaceutical markets by 2029.

DTx is being implemented to fill the growing gap in care

Healthcare systems struggled to cope with increasing acute pressure from the pandemic, as different regions faced lockdowns of fluctuating severity. Even though the pandemic is receding in the parts of the world where vaccines are abundant, healthcare systems are left to deal with a huge backlog of mental health cases. As the number of those suffering from symptoms of mental health disorders increases, this gap in care grows.

Where possible, healthcare services and practitioners have been quick to implement remote, digital solutions, such as DTx, to provide care and services where in-person care is limited.  During initial national lockdowns last April, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released new guidance, providing an expedited pathway to market for digital health therapeutics devices for the treatment of mental health disorders. Since releasing their new guidelines, examples of DTx approved in the space include Akili Interactive Labs’ video game-based therapy, EndeavorRx, for children suffering from ADHD.

In developed regions, physician and patient adoption will determine the overall success of DTx

Physicians will require robust clinical and cost-effectiveness data, strong financial incentives to prescribe these tools to their patients, and clear education. At the same time, patient adoption will be impacted by the generational divide as the younger, more digitally savvy generations are more willing to try DTx and older generations struggle to change their ways.

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Global inequality risks hindering DTx deployment

In less developed regions, the obstacles to the deployment of DTx for mental health services lie at a much earlier stage.

According to UNESCO, 45.2% of households worldwide do not have an internet connection, with a huge disparity in broadband penetration between the world’s richest and poorest nations. In the developed world, 13% are not connected, compared with 81% in the least developed nations. Without access to the internet, innovations in DTx are irrelevant and treatment must rely on more traditional therapeutic routes such as in-person consultation.

If we are serious about addressing the mental health crisis on a global scale, with events such as World Mental Health Day, we must ensure that we first tackle digital inequality. Only if that happens can DTx be an alternative therapeutic route on a global scale.