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By Herb Weiss, contributing writer
Over the course of 71 episodes of the widely-acclaimed Sopranos, Dr. Jennifer Melfi met with Tony Soprano in her office. The office had paneled walls, was decorated with a diploma on the wall, and next to that was a bookshelf filled with books. Melfi was counseling Mob Boss Tony Soprano for anxiety and depression. This was the typical office setting in any community before the COVID-19 pandemic spread like wildfire across the nation. But now with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, therapists are using alternative ways to reduce increasing depression and mental health needs of the patients. The typical face-to face therapy, like Melfi offered Soprano and her other patients, has been replaced by computer and smartphone-based tele-treatment.
While it remains unclear whether the technique is as effective as face-to-face psychotherapy that takes place in an office, they do offer a promising alternative to address the growing mental health needs spawned by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, and in a safe way, according to a research study published last month by the Washington, DC based American Psychological Association.
“The year 2020 marked 30 years since the first paper was published on a digital intervention for the treatment of depression. It also marked an unparalleled inflection point in the worldwide conversion of mental health services from face-to-face delivery to remote, digital solutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said lead author Isaac Moshe, MA, a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki in a Dec. 13 statement announcing the study’s findings.
“Given the accelerated adoption of digital interventions, it is both timely and important to ask to what extent digital interventions are effective in the treatment of depression, whether they may provide viable alternatives to face-to-face psychotherapy beyond the lab and what are the key factors that moderate outcomes,” he said.
The research article, “Digital interventions for the treatment of depression: A meta-analytic review,” was published online in the journal Psychological Bulletin. Psychological Bulletin, published on Dec. 13, 2021.
According to researchers, digital interventions, instead of the face-to face counseling sessions, typically require patients to log in to a software program on a computer website or app to read, watch, listen to, and interact with a series of content structured modules or lessons. Individuals oftentimes receive homework assignments relating to the modules and regularly complete digitally administered questionnaires relevant to their presenting mental health problems. This allows clinicians to monitor their progress and outcomes in cases where digital interventions include human support. Digital interventions are not the same as teletherapy, which has gotten much attention during the pandemic, according to Mosh, noting that teletherapy uses videoconferencing or telephone services to facilitate one-on-one psychotherapy.
“Digital interventions have been proposed as a way of meeting the unmet demand for psychological treatment,” notes Moshe. “As digital interventions are being increasingly adopted within both private and public health care systems, we set out to understand whether these treatments are as effective as traditional face-to-face therapy, to what extent human support has an impact on outcomes, and whether the benefits found in lab settings transfer to real-world settings,” he said.
According to the website article, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 83 studies testing digital applications for treating depression, dating as far back as 1990 and involving more than 15,000 participants in total, 80% adults and 69.5% women. All of these studies were randomized controlled trials comparing a digital intervention treatment to participants on a waitlist or receiving no treatment at all, or those receiving treatment as usual or with face-to-face psychotherapy. The researcher primarily focused on individuals with mild to moderate depression symptoms.
Overall, researchers found that digital interventions improved depression symptoms over control conditions, but the effect was not as strong as that found in a similar meta-analysis of face-to-face psychotherapy. There were not enough studies in the current meta-analysis to directly compare digital interventions to face-to-face psychotherapy, and researchers found no studies comparing digital strategies with drug therapy.
But digital treatments that involved a human component, whether in the form of feedback on assignments or technical assistance, were the most effective in reducing depression symptoms. This may be partially explained by the fact that a human component increased the likelihood that participants would complete the full intervention, and compliance with therapy is linked to better outcomes, according to Moshe.
Depression is predicted to be the leading cause of lost life years due to illness by 2030. At the same time, less than 1 in 5 people receive appropriate treatment, and less than 1 in 27 in low-income settings. A major reason for this is the lack of trained health care providers,” Moshe said. “Overall, our findings from effectiveness studies suggest that digital interventions may have a valuable role to play as part of the treatment offering in routine care, especially when accompanied by some sort of human guidance.”
Tech use by Seniors skyrocketed
As noted above, while the continuing COVID-19 pandemic has increased the popularity of using digital intervention, teletherapy uses videoconferencing or telephone services to facilitate one-on-one psychotherapy, a newly released AARP Tech Trends reports an increased use of technology by seniors to facilitate social contact to families and friends to reduce isolation.
According to AARP’s report released on Dec. 21, tech use by people age 50 and over, skyrocketed during the pandemic and those new habits and behaviors appear to continue. What’s more, 70% of those surveyed purchased tech last year, with spending far greater today than it was in 2019; $821 now as versus $394, then. Smartphones, and related accessories, along with Bluetooth headsets topped the list of their purchases, but smart home technology was vital to them, too.
Unsurprisingly the researchers say that technology use has facilitated social connectedness with others throughout the pandemic. They found that the rates of reliance on tech for social connection is consistently high across age ranges: 76% of those in their 50s, 79% of those in their 60s, and 72% of people 70+ all count tech as their link to their families and the wider world.
“The pandemic redrew the lines: Tech has gone from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have for Americans 50+, and their new habits are here to stay,” said Alison Bryant, AARP Senior Vice President of Research in a Dec. 21 statement announcing the study’s findings. “Those who can afford tech are spending a lot more than they did just a few years ago – more than twice what they spent in 2019. And their motivations vary: Some use tech to work, others to stay connected to family and friends, and others still to enable them to age in place or get assistance with needs. At the same time, we’re also mindful of the digital divide, where a lack of affordability can also mean no access to tech and its benefits,” says Bryant.
The Tech report noted that seniors continue to incorporate tech into their daily lives. Certain tech behaviors formed during the ongoing pandemic appear to be here to stay such as video chat, making online purchases, ordering groceries, doing banking, and engaging in health services, with seniors making more purchases and financial transactions online compared to previous years.
Researchers also found that during the last two years, older adults’ usage of a home assistant and owning a wearable has doubled. The Tech study also reveals that learning how to use and manage smart home technology is a top interest of seniors. Smartphones continue to be adopted in new ways to manage day-to-day living and entertainment. This year, one third of seniors ordered take-out food from a restaurant and one in four listened to podcasts on their smartphones.
Health-related innovations and daily objects that automatically track health measures on tech devices are also of top interest, say the researchers, noting that 42% of older adults feel tech is not designed with them in mind.
Finally, the AARP Tech Trends report found that 30% of older adults are using tech to pursue personal passions, mostly with video content. Streaming content continues to increase with most of them subscribing on average to three platforms.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic not going away in the near future, the use of technology will continue to increase to maintain contact with family and friends, to access education, telehealth services, for use in financial transitions, shopping, and entertainment.
Herb Weiss, LRI’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly and its sequel, Taking Charge: Vol 2 More Stories on Aging Boldly, go to herbweiss.com.
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