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Innovator Spotlight Q&A Series: Sabine Wilhelm, PhD

Mar 9, 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 Sabine Wilhelm, PhD, Chief of Psychology, Director, MGH Center for Digital Mental Health, and Director, MGH Center for OCD and Related Disorders, for her work to improve care for individuals with mental health disorders. Dr. Wilhelm, with her team at the Center for Digital Mental Health, developed smartphone cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) apps for a range of psychiatric disorders. They tested these apps with patients, clinicians, and researchers in collaboration with an industry partner, Koa Health.

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

SW: Most individuals with mental health disorders do not receive care, or they receive care that would not be considered adequate. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental health field had a severe shortage of mental health professionals. The pandemic took a serious toll on our mental health, and more individuals were getting ill. Thus, we urgently need scalable evidence-based interventions to address current mental health needs.

Considering the widespread access to cell phones in the U.S. and globally, smartphone-based treatments can provide an opportunity. Thus, at MGH’s Center for Digital Mental Health, we developed smartphone cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) apps for a range of psychiatric disorders. These apps were developed and tested with clinicians and researchers and in collaboration with an industry partner (Koa Health, as well as with the help of our patients, who provided valuable input.

The core components of these apps include goal setting, psychoeducation, mindfulness, cognitive/behavioral skills, and relapse prevention. To keep patients engaged, the app-based treatments are paired with different levels of human support. For example, some apps offer access to a BA-level coach who provides motivational interventions, and other apps are offered alongside brief therapy sessions with a clinical psychologist.

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

SW: Given the current shortage of mental health service providers, we were hopeful that we could give more patients access to high-quality evidence-based care through technology-based or technology-enhanced interventions. As our work progressed, we were particularly encouraged by how much patients liked these nontraditional interventions.

Individuals often cannot access traditional face-to-face mental health interventions because of logistical challenges, such as having to find transportation to get to appointments or needing childcare while attending therapy. The cost of traditional treatments can also be a common barrier. Many individuals also face attitudinal barriers, such as a fear of the stigma associated with attending psychiatric treatment appointments.

Smartphones are ubiquitous, and patients can access a relatively inexpensive smartphone-based intervention no matter where they are and whenever they want, and most individuals are used to having wellness and health apps on their phones. This reduces many of the barriers patients might have traditionally experienced when accessing face-to-face interventions and highlights the promise of smartphone-based tools.

While many patients will continue to seek out traditional interventions, others might not want or need those treatments and might prefer the flexibility of an app-based intervention.  We were inspired by the potential of a more flexible healthcare system that ultimately gives patients more choices to personalize their care.

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

SW: We recently published the results of our smartphone-based intervention with coach support for Body Dysmorphic Disorder, characterized by a preoccupation with a perceived appearance flaw. We are also currently completing clinical trials for other use cases and disorders, and we are in the early stages of commercialization.

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

SW: We received strong support from MGH leadership as well as from the MGH Department of Psychiatry leadership right from the start. The MGB Innovation group was also very helpful and available to answer any questions that we had. Research management, the IRB leadership, and the Clinical Trials Office have been very supportive, too. The staff from the Center for Innovation in Digital Healthcare (CIDH) has been extremely helpful regarding our recent implementation efforts.

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

SW: If you are planning on working with an industry collaborator, make sure you find the right partner, and be thoughtful about what you are willing to share and what you want to accomplish with the relationship.

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

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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.