Smartphones: The Clinician’s New Assistant

Working in T2’s usability lab, the Technology Enhancement Center, my team and I get to talk to quite a few health providers about their clinical practice—specifically, if and how they use smartphones and mobile apps with their patients.

What? Did I just say using smartphones while in a therapy session? Can you imagine? What do clinicians and patients do—sit in the therapist’s office and text each other? Don’t smartphones take away from the therapeutic relationship between the clinician and the patient? Is the smartphone now the therapist? Is there no longer a need for a real person?

Quite the contrary—we’re seeing that smartphones and mobile apps are increasingly being sought after by providers, because they’re convinced it helps their clients. For example, the T2 Mood Tracker app lets users track their moods over time, which can serve to document their progress, according to one provider.

“[It’s a] good way to remember where patients were [with their moods]. As they are getting better, they forget how badly they were doing. They forget how far they’ve come, how well they are doing.”

Another provider at a military clinic uses T2 Mood Tracker when working with couples to help them become more self-aware. Once patients learn to identify internal states such as stress and anxiety, they can better communicate what they’re feeling.

“Young couples…don’t communicate emotions well. It helps patients…know what’s going on internally, then [communicate] to each other. It gives users a language to talk about their internal states.”

The same provider also uses T2’s Breathe2Relax app—which helps patients learn how to use diaphragmatic breathing to reduce stress—as an educational tool during patient sessions.

“I use the body scan in Breathe2Relax to help patients identify what’s going on in their body.”

Providers ranging from family therapists to psychologists to physicians are indicating their growing interest in using mobile apps, not only in their practice but also for themselves. One physician at a base on the West Coast admitted that there were limited resources available to help handle burnout.

‘We [doctors] could use Breathe2Relax.”

But there are challenges. While service members are (generally) from a generation that can’t live without a smartphone, many providers are older, and are still picking and choosing what they want to use among today’s vast selection of technology. Some clinicians suggested that personalized training on how to use apps in their practice would help.

“The biggest challenge to using apps in practice is the lack of practical hands-on training for providers. First you have to introduce the app to the practice, then…get them to use it.”

“People might have a really difficult time learning all that technology. Clinicians are a lot older; patients are a lot younger. Maybe some hands-on training courses; face-to-face is better than videos or manuals.”

Smartphones have become a vital tool in behavioral health care. For those of us working on developing the next generation of mobile apps, it’s invaluable for our team to talk to those who can put these tools into the hands of those who find them helpful. Providers help us figure out what’s working, what’s not, and what tools they want in the future, with the shared goal of becoming better at helping service members, veterans and their families.