US military eyes online mental healthcare

By Owen Hembry

Medical software developer DGL Doctor Global is on the verge of a multimillion-dollar deal to supply its eCare for Life software to the United States military.

The software would be used for online consultations with people suffering mental health problems after serving in military operations.

DGL says a New England Journal of Medicine study shows 28 per cent of military veterans returning from Iraq experience mental health problems. With about 330,000 soldiers having served in Iraq, treatment could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

DGL chief executive Roger Gower said the software would enable patients to self-monitor, learn about and manage their condition, improve contact with caregivers, plan appointments and reduce the cost of care.

Patients go through an online learning programme that can take up to eight weeks.

They learn about their condition, how to monitor progress and to develop action plans in co-ordination with their caregiver.

"The patients can then recognise earlier when they’re entering a phase when they’d be a lot more anxious ... and they’ll have devised strategies for how they’re going to deal with these things."

Information provided online by patients can trigger alarm signals for caregivers to make contact.

Gower said the system was not designed as a replacement for traditional face-to-face consultation but rather a complementary part of the healthcare system.

Improved self-awareness and frequent monitoring could identify problems before they required a clinical visit, he said.

The use of alarm messages triggered by patients’ online responses could also help caregivers to prioritise their workload.

"If you’ve got 15 voice-mails to get through after lunch, you don’t know if the first one is the most important or the last one."

Gower said online healthcare was ideal for helping to treat soldiers who had difficulty re-adjusting to civilian life.

Soldiers could experience what traumatic stress experts called "no safe place", which, in turn, could lead to anxiety disorders.

"Often they won’t see a health professional because of the stigma around mental illness and fear that seeking help will be viewed as an admission of weakness."

Gower said online monitoring could improve the medical contact and care patients received.

"It’s there to improve productivity and patient outcome through making the nurse, doctor and patient much more involved, and that will reduce the likelihood of acute care being needed later on."

The New Plymouth company received a $96,829 Technology New Zealand grant last year to assist with developing the software.

Gower said online consulting could be used in other medical fields as people became more comfortable with it.

"The internet is actually a very intimate medium.

"Our system includes secure instant messaging direct to the user’s clinician, which can be a faster and more efficient way of making contact."

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