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Technology: powerful driver in the treatment of mental health issues

Innovation & Sustainability

7 January 2020

While treating mental health issues may be the ultimate ‘people business’, the use of electronic tools has become common currency in the mental health field, says Martin de Heer, CEO of mental health care provider Mentaal Beter. As he explains, “data-based thinking is really in our DNA.”

When healthcare entrepreneur Martin de Heer and several of his colleagues decided to open their own practices back in 2004, they were certain about one thing: their desire to adopt an innovative approach to mental health care. They were focused on personalised care, a high level of practitioner-client interaction, and helping clients to regain their vitality and reclaim their lives. What they felt at least as important was an evidence-based treatment pathway, which involves conducting tests before, during and after the treatment. “I think we were one of the first providers in the Netherlands to adopt this approach,” De Heer says. “Data was already on our minds when we founded Mentaal Beter, even though we only used old-school paper questionnaires back then.”

Mentaal Beter has since been incorporated into the NL Mentalcare Group, along with Vitalmindz and Opdidakt: a network of mental health practices spread across approximately 110 locations throughout the Netherlands, with a total of more than 1,000 psychologists, psychiatrists and special education experts on staff. The organisation has also become one of the most innovative players where the use of technology in treatments is concerned. De Heer: “Most of our clients still physically travel to one of our sites to see a practitioner, but we also have our own e-mental health platform, which enables clients to work on their recovery at home. They even have the option to do the full treatment from the comfort of their homes, using a secure video connection at Mentaal Beter online. Although we have found that most clients still prefer face-to-face contact.”

Mentaal Beter boasts an all-digital and cloud-based back office, with a self-evident focus on data security and privacy. All practitioners store relevant data electronically. Using this data as input, the system generates fully automatic reports on areas such as caseload and treatment progress at the client level, along with management information for local authorities, health insurance providers and other stakeholders. “Our practitioners can log on in the morning, check the various dashboards and be instantly up to date,” De Heer says. “Our main priorities are learning, improving and intervening in time, not to create some Big Brother-type environment. In fact, our practitioners would never put up with it if we did.”

Horizontal supervision
According to De Heer, this strong focus on technology and data has another advantage: it results in above-average compliance levels within the company. “In the early years, it was standard practice for health insurance companies to analyse your healthcare expenses afterwards,” De Heer says. “This would often lead to massive insurance claims and reputational damage, for example because things weren’t properly registered or weren’t fully compliant with the protocol. Since we didn’t want to run that risk, we began investing from day one in a software tool that assesses all diagnosis/treatment combinations in advance against the criteria set by the health insurers themselves. We have become very skilled at electronic risk management – so skilled, in fact, that we will soon be eligible for what is known as ‘horizontal supervision.’ This means health insurance companies basically tell you: ‘We will no longer check your invoices, but only your system.’ It’s a real milestone, and it tells you that data-based thinking is really in our DNA.”

“Data-based thinking is really in our DNA”

As it turns out, there have been other milestones to celebrate. In late 2017, Mentaal Beter became the first mental health care provider to develop an application (in conjunction with Stichting Koppeltaal) which enables users to gain access to specific e-health applications from different providers, regardless of the type of IT platform they use. “That was another breakthrough, because up to that point clients were always limited to a single provider. Now, we can offer best-of-breed in terms of e-health,” De Heer says. “That gives both our practitioners and our clients significantly more freedom of choice when it comes to selecting the most suitable treatment.”

Due in part to this freedom of choice, as well as to the fact that waitlists have virtually been eliminated, Dutch GPs are more often referring people with mental health issues to the innovative healthcare provider. The organisation also maintains an active acquisition policy. Combined, this has resulted in a doubling of the revenue between 2015 and 2019 (from €23.5 million to €55 million). “We can make these acquisitions because we’ve got a rock-solid platform,” De Heer says. “Many of the companies we acquire still use paper files, so we’re leading them into the future as far as the technology is concerned.”

Intensive treatment
When asked about future trends, De Heer first mentions a previously announced smartphone app called Vital Health Engage, developed in association with Philips Healthcare. Clients can use the app not just to log in to the Mentaal Beter e-mental health platform, but also to access their treatment plan and chat with their practitioner. Features such as a messaging service, tasks, tests and educational videos are all provided as well. “This is the future,” De Heer says, “particularly if we can enhance the app down the line with monitoring capabilities through the use of wearables, such as sleep, mood and stress sensors. Questionnaires are still commonly used in mental health care, but they’re not always completely reliable. You can ask someone if they feel stressed, but measuring their stress level on the spot is a whole different story.”

De Heer thinks technology will play an increasingly important role in the treatment of mental health issues in the coming years. “For example, we’re currently experimenting with the use of VR headsets in treating trauma and anxiety disorders. It’s early days yet, but my expectations are high because it enables very intensive, fully personalised treatment. And we will be seeing many other new trends and developments in our field in the coming years.”

Read more about ‘Tech for people’ in Capital Magazine