May 20 (UPI) -- An app designed to help primary care physicians manage patients with mental health conditions is easy to use and successfully assisted in the delivery of treatment, according to a study published Wednesday by JAMA Psychiatry.
The study assessed a mobile app called Intellicare, finding that more than half the patients using it to manage symptoms and engage in self-care reported "recovery" from depression and anxiety.
Researchers said study participants found their symptoms remained controlled for at least four months during the study period.
"The great majority of people with mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, are unable to get adequate treatment," study co-author David. C. Mohr, director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told UPI.
"Apps and websites can be effective, particularly when there is someone in a coaching or care management role who helps the person stay on track," he said.
As many as 7 percent of U.S. adults suffer from depression, while some 40 million have symptoms of anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The two conditions are often "comorbid," meaning they occur together in many patients.
A shortage of mental health professionals in the United States has led more people with these disorders to turn to primary care physicians for treatment, the researchers noted. However, many primary care physicians lack the expertise, and time, to manage these conditions appropriately, they said.
Digital mental health interventions -- which include mobile apps such as Beating the Blues, MoodGYM, Therapist-Assisted Online, Headspace, Smiling Mind, DeStressify and CareCollaborateConnect -- are designed to help fill treatment gaps.
In addition to helping users assess how they feel, they provide self-management strategies, therapeutic exercises and, in some cases, counseling services.
Mohr said more than 10,000 apps and web sites promise to offer assistance for managing mental health conditions. However, he added, studies assessing their use in real-world patients have yielded mixed results because people often stop using them.
"Many of these digital treatments are constructed like courses, requiring people to spend long periods of time reading or watching videos, which is hard, especially if you're dealing with loss of motivation, which is a common symptom of many mental health problems," he said.
Mohr and his colleagues developed IntelliCare, a suite of apps designed to address specific aspects of common mental health disorders. One app, Daily Feats, assists in setting and completing goals. Another app, Day-to-Day, offers users a brief bit of information each week and daily messages to help implement new self-care strategies into people's lives, he said.
For the study, the researchers enrolled 146 participants, 122 diagnosed with depression and 131 diagnosed with anxiety. Roughly half of the study participants were assigned to use IntelliCare for at least eight weeks, while the rest received standard treatment.
The researchers found that 38 of the 64 IntelliCare users with depression, or 59 percent, reported "recovery," which is defined as an improvement on a commonly used assessment for the disorder. In the standard treatment group, 18 of 58, or 31 percent of participants, reported recovery.
Similarly, 37 of the 65 IntelliCare users with anxiety, or 57 percent, reported recovery, compared to 25 of 66, or 38 percent, in the standard treatment group.
In both groups, app use was high, researchers said. Over the eight weeks, those with depression used it a median of 93 times, while those with anxiety used it a median of 98.
"This study showed that with a very small amount of support from a care manager, IntelliCare could greatly improve mental health outcomes in primary care because we are not relying on one single app for depression or anxiety, rather we are using a platform apps, each of which is focused on one skill," Mohr said.
"The variety of apps allows people to choose what works best for them. When they are no longer interested in using an app, there are others to choose from. We believe novelty is another factor in maintaining engagement."