During Mental Health Awareness Month, I can’t help but reflect on the impact COVID-19 has had on mental health and frontline worker burnout. Each year millions of people around the world face the reality of living with a mental illness, but during COVID-19 we saw many people overwhelmed by loneliness due to extreme isolation, grief over the loss of loved ones, and anxiety due to COVID-19 related factors. According to a World Health Organization report, the prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25 percent globally during the first year of COVID-19, with women and young people most profoundly impacted. Research published last year by the Boston University School of Public Health found that nearly one in three Americans are struggling with depression. Surveys1 show between 20 percent and 30 percent of frontline healthcare workers in the United States are considering leaving the profession, and there is a projected shortage2 of 18 million frontline healthcare workers worldwide by 2030. Many experts believe that we could be feeling the impacts of COVID-19 and the trauma it caused for a generation. It is critical that we make every effort to decrease barriers and stressors and increase collaboration and a sense of community at every touchpoint of healthcare delivery.
Mental health is an incredibly important part of a person’s overall health, especially how psychological and physical well-being play a role in every aspect of wellness. With a growing number of individuals experiencing mental health symptoms, technology can play a role to support patients, encouraging those with potential mental issues to seek professional help, and someday could help to reduce the stigma associated with mental health.
Improving patient experiences through virtual health
Driven by the COVID-19 crisis, the healthcare sector has had to quickly find new ways of safely providing quality care to patients. For many, the solution was to go digital—typically in the form of virtual health services, like virtual appointments or utilizing AI-powered chat assistants. Recent research has reflected the virtual trend as well: a RAND study found that the significant rise in telehealth use during the height of COVID-19 was driven more by people looking for mental health services than care for physical conditions. During COVID-19, Calgary Counselling Centre’s (CCC) needed a secure, easy-to-use solution to help them continue serving high-quality care to their patients. When in-office consultations were ruled out, staff already had ideas for best practices that could help keep services available, especially in light of heightened demand during these difficult times. The organization deployed Microsoft Teams Virtual Visits as an easy tool for clients and counselors from all cultural and economic backgrounds to use. Now a key tool in the Centre’s counseling and education practice, Teams helps CCC achieve successful treatment rates—higher than those measured during its pre-pandemic, in-person practice.
On March 23, 2020, the United Kingdom government announced a lockdown in response to COVID-19. The need to limit face-to-face contact for infection prevention and control was uppermost in the minds of senior leaders at Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (GMMH). Yet the needs of service users had to be met. Psychological therapy (IAPT) is GMMH’s largest service and it was most eager for remote working capabilities. It delivers talking therapy support for people with mild, moderate, and moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety or depression. Around 5,000 people were accessing face-to-face IAPT meetings in March when, almost overnight, the Trust found itself no longer able to offer those services. They moved from 10,000 in-person appointments per month to holding them all remotely via Microsoft Teams in two weeks. Even today, the Trust is able to offer more choices to its clients. The ability to access care without having to traverse the busy city region to reach a clinical location will make accessing support more comfortable for many service users battling anxiety-related issues, avoidance, or depression.
AI has the ability to increase equity and access to mental health services, eliminating barriers to convenience, access, or privacy. This allows healthcare systems to offer services available every day on demand, on different platforms and gives patients the space to have sensitive conversations—even more so for ones that might not feel comfortable having out loud in a face-to-face environment.
The rise of digital mental healthcare has also brought up the use of AI to triage patients, broaden access to, and availability of mental health services. If there is one chief benefit of using AI in clinical care, it’s the technology’s ability to obtain insights from massive amounts of data. Austrian mental health provider Anima Mentis has developed a ground-breaking solution that uses data and AI to prevent and treat mental illnesses. The idea is that by studying how a person reacts to different events and occasions, it’s possible to anticipate how they’ll react to similar events in the future—and therefore prepare them for any circumstance. Anima Mentis is doing this by collecting a broad range of biometric, medical, and contextual data both at and outside its center. With the help of innovation service provider Zühlke Austria, the organization is realizing a cloud-based AI platform that analyzes information to produce tailored recommendations for patients, who can use them to avoid burnout and train their mental strength.
Burnout and mental health among frontline healthcare workers
Workplace surveys and reports from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics continue to signal a burnout-fueled professional exodus from healthcare.3 Frontline healthcare worker burnout has swelled to impact 55 percent of frontline healthcare workers at any given point in time.4 A recent survey5 found that nearly a third of frontline healthcare workers in the United States are now considering not simply moving on from their institution, but leaving the field altogether. But if the pandemic has overwhelmed these workers, it has also spurred a wealth of research into the causes of burnout and the ensuing fallout, from mental health impacts to national turnover rates clinicians. These studies and surveys also point toward concrete solutions—positive ways that the smart implementation of technology can help reduce clinician burnout.
Integrating AI and machine learning into the healthcare frontline processes allows for a variety of benefits, including easing workflows, and analyzing large data sets to deliver better healthcare faster, and at a lower cost. But it also has the power to help significantly reduce the overwhelming burden of administrative tasks that have made it so difficult for healthcare workers to do what inspired them to go into medicine in the first place.
The frontline healthcare worker “great resignation” and clinician burnout epidemic are two of the biggest challenges we have faced as an industry this decade. In collaboration with our trusted electronic healthcare record (EHR) partners and the broader healthcare ecosystem, Microsoft and Nuance will continue to bring the most advanced capabilities into the workflow of clinicians and frontline workers to help reduce the overwhelming burden of administrative tasks that have made it so difficult for them to do what inspired them to go into medicine in the first place.
The right tools can centralize communication, surface insights, facilitate file sharing, streamline workforce management, and integrate partner applications. And the right purpose-built devices can streamline engagement and boost productivity, keeping teams connected whether they’re several feet or many miles apart, and even track and support wellbeing.
Mental Health Awareness Month is an observance meant to bring awareness to mental health issues and bring awareness to the issues faced by so many. While mental health will continue to be an evolving crisis, one thing remains true: mental health and well-being are about people caring for people. While technology may not be able to solve every problem, we can help ease the burden on the people who provide such vital care for patients and find new ways to extend mental health care to the people who need it most. If technology is going to make a difference, it will only be through deep partnerships across the care ecosystem, and by earning their trust and the trust of the people they serve. As part of our ongoing commitment to health and well-being, I know that every solution and advancement we bring to the market will be designed to create better experiences, insights, and care for all.
- Learn more about Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare from our website.
- Read the Microsoft WorkLab article, “How healthcare industry leaders can help fight burnout.”