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Innovator Spotlight Q&A Series: Kathryn Bentley, PhD

Jul 20, 2023 | Innovator Spotlight, News

Innovator Series

The CIDH Innovator Spotlight is a Q&A series that celebrates innovative ideas, highlights the important work that digital health innovators are doing to advance patient care and outcomes at Mass General Hospital, and shares key learnings about the innovation journey.

We are pleased to feature Kathryn Bentley, PhD, who is a Clinical Psychologist for the Depression Clinical & Research Program within the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Dr. Bentley is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard Medical School (HMS). She received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Boston University and completed her pre-doctoral internship in the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy track at MGH/HMS.

Q: Tell us about your innovation and the challenge(s) you are trying to solve. Who are the people involved?

KB: My research is broadly focused on better predicting and preventing suicide, the 12th leading cause of death across all ages in the U.S., and the second among young people. Overall, the national suicide rate has increased by more than one-third over the past couple of decades.1 Unfortunately, suicide prevention research receives far less funding than many other leading causes of death.

Our hope is not to replace clinicians, but rather to enhance care by making it more timely, personalized, and accessible for people at risk for suicide.

More people who die by suicide (upwards of 75%) saw a healthcare provider in the year before their death.2 This means that, in hospital systems, we have a clear opportunity to identify the people at highest risk and intervene to prevent their deaths. Our team focuses on leveraging advances in technology to move beyond traditional approaches to suicide risk prediction and prevention in healthcare settings. Specifically, we are using technology to try to get better at identifying who is at highest risk, when people are at highest risk, and provide people with more timely, personalized support when needed.

One arm of our work–led by Dr. Jordan Smoller–aims to develop, evaluate, and implement machine learning models built on electronic health record data that predict which patients are at highest risk for suicidal behavior, including using model predictions to inform precision treatment. With Dr. Matthew Nock, another area of our work involves using actively and passively collected data from smartphones and wearable sensors to identify not only who, but also when, patients are at highest risk for suicide during very high-risk time periods (for example, after an inpatient hospitalization). We are now developing and testing brief, scalable interventions (some of which are digital) that provide real-time support during high-risk moments. Our hope is not to replace clinicians, but rather to enhance care by making it more timely, personalized, and accessible for people at risk for suicide. We are also working to return the smartphone and sensor data we collect from patients to their providers to potentially aid in clinical decision-making.

Q: The innovation process can be long and challenging, but also rewarding. What inspired you to begin this journey?

KB: I have a few personal connections to the cause of suicide prevention, including a couple of people close to me who died by suicide. This has always left me wondering what more might have been done to prevent their deaths. My first exposure to suicide prevention research was during my undergraduate years when I did an internship with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which inspired me to make this the focus of my research career. Also, as a licensed clinical psychologist, I treat young adults and adults struggling with depression, anxiety, and suicidal/self-injurious thoughts and behaviors, which continues to motivate me to improve how we help those at risk. There will simply never be enough mental health providers to meet the need, which makes the potential of technology to scale suicide prediction and prevention efforts exciting.

Q: Where are you in the innovation cycle (i.e., early-stage commercialization)?

KB: We are still very early on in the innovation cycle, spending our time largely on development and evaluation. We are currently (or will soon be) starting up a couple of different randomized trials to evaluate new, either fully digital or technology-enhanced approaches to suicide prevention during the high-risk periods after hospital discharge. As I mentioned earlier, we are also partnering with clinicians, patients, and other stakeholders to collect valuable information to help determine how the tools and interventions we are developing might ultimately be useful in the “real world.”

Q: What internal resources have been most helpful to you?

KB: First and foremost, my incredible mentors and colleagues at MGH (including but not limited to those at the Center for Precision Psychiatry and Depression Clinical and Research Program) and Harvard (the Nock Lab).

Second, I recently received funding from the MGH ECOR Claflin Distinguished Scholar Award for our ongoing analysis of suicide risk screening and assessment measures used at more than three million patient visits in the Mass General Brigham electronic health record. The Claflin Award provides research support to women during childrearing years and aims to facilitate advancements to senior positions in academic medicine. I would definitely encourage other junior women scientists to apply!

Q: If you could give one piece of advice to another innovator in the Mass General Brigham network, what would it be?

KB: My biggest piece of advice would be to prioritize building a strong, collaborative team of mentors and colleagues. For me, this has been key to not only enjoying the work that I do day-to-day but also advancing the (team) science and innovation far beyond what I could accomplish on my own.

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. National Vital Statistics System, Mortality 2018-2021 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released in 2023. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 2018-2021, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed at on Jul 20, 2023.

2 Ahmedani BK, Westphal J, Autio K, Elsiss F, Peterson EL, Beck A, Waitzfelder BE, Rossom RC, Owen-Smith AA, Lynch F, Lu CY, Frank C, Prabhakar D, Braciszewski JM, Miller-Matero LR, Yeh HH, Hu Y, Doshi R, Waring SC, Simon GE. Variation in patterns of health care before suicide: A population case-control study. Prev Med. 2019 Oct;127:105796. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2019.105796. Epub 2019 Aug 7. PMID: 31400374; PMCID: PMC6744956.

CIDH would like to thank Dr. Kathryn Bentley for participating in our Innovator Spotlight Series and sharing valuable information with our digital health community.

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Suicide Prevention Resources

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC) has detailed prevention resources and strategies that can be found on their website. CDC’s Prevention Resource outlines strategies for action to help communities and states focus on impactful methods of suicide prevention and risk.

Contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline if you or a loved one is experiencing mental health-related distress and is in need of crisis support.

You can call or text 988 or chat with a trained crisis counselor at 988 is confidential, free, and available 24/7/365.

Center for Innovation in Digital HealthCare

Founded in 2018, CIDH serves as a catalyst to promote the entrepreneurial and research-minded digital health ecosystem at Massachusetts General Hospital. It provides operational and advisory support to internal innovators and outside industries seeking to collaborate on digital health initiatives.