The new smartwatch tech that could help diagnose mental ill health

The new smartwatch tech that could help diagnose mental ill health

The new smartwatch tech that could help diagnose mental ill health

It can count your steps, and sleep, but could your wearable device turn into a screening tool for anxiety and depression?

Image: iStock

Up until now, wearable devices with heart rate monitors have been all about your physical fitness: They can tell you how intense your workout was, how quickly your body recovered, and even how well you slept afterwards.

But a new screening technology claims to take note of your heart’s rhythms and use it to screen your risk of mental illness. Experts predict that we’ll soon even be able to diagnose conditions like clinical depression with 80 per cent accuracy.

Medibio is an Australian-US company with a suite of technology promising high accuracy in the screening and diagnosing of mental illness. Its screening tool analyses circadian heart and sleep data from wearable tech to provide a mental illness risk. Currently available through a digital public health program called Australia’s Biggest Mental Health Check-in, it will be widely launched early next year and compatible with many devices. It’s being pitched at the corporate wellness market as well as individuals.

In the coming months, Medibio will also launch its clinical diagnosis technology, which if successful with medics could bring in millions – if not billions – of dollars. The company has attracted US champion swimmer Michael Phelps to its board, and has secured a five-year trial with the reputable Mayo Clinic in the US.

For psychologists like Peta Slocombe, who runs Australia’s Biggest Mental Health Check-in, this technology is a win-win for patients and their care providers. “We’re fascinated with our body’s data – it’s like taking a selfie from the inside,” she says, adding that it will save clinicians precious time. “We’ll no longer be working like archaeologists, sifting through the sand to find evidence.”

What the science says

Researchers have been looking into the relationship between our heart patterns and our mental health for a couple of decades, and they’ve found that heart rate variability (HRV) is an important clue. HRV is the difference in time between each heart beat, and when this and other heart data is measured over a 24-hour period or more, the circadian patterns can tell us a lot about our inner health. It’s normal for our nervous system to be under stress during the day, but not at night, Slocombe says. Stress on the nervous system that prevents our body from resting properly during sleep is a sign of poor mental health.

Combine this new health-tracking method with the wealth of research that shows a clear link between disturbed sleep patterns and depression, and suddenly the idea that an algorithm could take someone’s physical data – like their HRV and sleep patterns – and figure out the likelihood of them having a mental illness doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

Medibio CEO Jack Cosentino says he was watching the company for a while before he came on board, and the turning point for him was when the technology’s accuracy in diagnosing clinical depression was confirmed at 82 per cent by external testing.

“Compare this to the 70 per cent accuracy that psychiatrists have, or the 30-50 per cent accuracy in primary care, and it’s really impressive,” he says. “The idea is to empower clinicians to help more of the population.”

The current standard in diagnosing clinical depression is if a patient meets a certain number of criteria, as determined by the clinician. It’s a subjective process that can be easily compromised. “A person could have had a terrible few months but then present well at their GP, or vice versa,” Slocombe says. Cosentino puts it more bluntly: “The data doesn’t lie.” But what about the accuracy of the device recording the data? There’s been plenty of criticism (even a lawsuit) launched at wristband trackers whose heart rate monitors didn’t work effectively during intense exercise.

Medibio says its technology is ‘deviceneutral’ and most wrist trackers will be able to measure changes in our nervous system over a long period (although the Apple smartwatches' shorter battery life will pose an issue). However, a clinician would still decide on the best device to use for a diagnosis of depression.

Image: iStock

Image: iStockSource:BodyAndSoul

Aussies are leading the way

More than 6000 Australians have already put their physical data forward for screening with Medibio technology, via Australia’s Biggest Mental Health Check-in, which launched last year. The program saw employees from corporations such as Wesfarmers and PricewaterhouseCoopers complete an online psychological survey and wear a medical-grade monitoring device for at least 24 hours. Individual reports were sent to their phones, which gave them a dashboard of their mental wellbeing, ranking the severity of their symptoms, as well as their risk and protective factors. All participants had the opportunity to take up counselling, and anyone high-risk received follow-ups with a psychologist and ongoing support. The program is open until December 10 and the plan is for it to be compatible with most smartwatches and trackers next year.

Initial results revealed that 39 per cent of participants showed signs of depression, while nine out of 10 people with signs of any mental illness weren’t being treated. These alarming findings didn’t surprise Slocombe.

“Participants were mostly professional, and that 39 per cent statistic matches with earlier surveys. And there’s still a stigma around mental illness; that’s why people don’t seek help, and that’s why we began this program – to be proactive about it.”

Some people’s biomarkers showed a lot of stress but their survey answers were positive or neutral, which Slocombe explains this way: “They may show gratitude for a rewarding job, family and income, but their coping mechanisms actually punch above their body’s capabilities.”

Slocombe believes that providing data first, and support second, is the right approach for reaching a large number of people in corporate settings: “We haven’t replaced traditional methods, we’ve added to them. When we followed up three months later, 56 per cent of participants said they’d made significant lifestyle changes as a result of the program, which is a great result.”

While an objective test can’t replace a personal assessment, Slocombe says it can help fix the current inaccuracies in a subjective diagnosis. “Hopefully this technology will increase the right people, getting the right treatment, at the right time.”

Where should I measure my heart rate?

Chest: Chest strap monitors use electrical pulse, similar to an ECG, to measure heartbeat and patterns. It’s the most reliable technology, but can be uncomfortable if used for a long duration.

Wrist: Wrist devices take measurements far from the heart and their optic sensor technology is less accurate than electrical pulse, but they’re comfortable and useful for everyday activities.

Ears: Earbud heart-rate monitors also use optic sensor technology, which makes them as reliable as a wrist device, but only really practical for workouts and short bursts of time.

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