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The supporting role of supervised digital therapy

Virtual care · Oct 22, 2021

As Canadians continue to ride the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also battling another crisis; cases of mental illness and substance abuse are on the rise across the country. With the demand for mental health therapy at an unprecedented high, help can be in limited supply.

New innovations in the field of healthcare delivery, such as virtual care and online therapy, can help alleviate the strain the pandemic has put on our healthcare system. Through encrypted text and video calls, patients can now connect directly with healthcare professionals, whenever and wherever they need it, overcoming many of the barriers that could potentially deter people from seeking the treatment they need. Digital behavioural therapies, such as digital cognitive behavioural therapy, are also becoming increasingly common in treatment plans delivered both in-person and online.

What is cognitive behavioural therapy?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely investigated and practiced forms of psychotherapy; it focuses on cognition (thoughts, attitudes and beliefs based on perception) and behavioural patterns. This approach is commonly used in clinical settings to help with symptoms of mental illness, including mood disorders, anxiety and panic disorders, eating disorders, stress-related illnesses and even substance abuse.

CBT offers patients structured, problem-focused and goal-oriented techniques that can be immediately applied in everyday life. It often includes assignments that patients complete on their own, between sessions with their therapist. These assignments are designed to help patients apply the therapeutic concepts they learn in therapy and maintain healthy cognitive habits. In other words, patients are given examples of healthy coping mechanisms and strategic exercises that can help improve their ability to manage certain symptoms related to mental illness. Given its practical and structured approach, CBT can be effectively delivered digitally, in supervised or unsupervised models, straight to a patient’s devices.

What is Specialized Digital Therapy?

TELUS Health Virtual Care offers both face-to-face online therapy and Specialized Digital Therapy using Digital Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (dCBT). dCBT is an asynchronous, supervised model of therapy delivered digitally. Supervised by a licensed therapist licensed in their province, patients are given access to structured learning modules designed to target their specific area of need. These modules are to be completed within a certain time frame and are then reviewed by the assigned therapist, who will provide the patient with feedback on their progress.

dCBT allows therapists to actively monitor and more easily respond to changes in their patients’ trajectory. In the event that a patient is not responding favourably to their dCBT treatment plan, they can be redirected to face-to-face therapy (virtual or in person) or psychiatry within the TELUS Health ecosystem. This fully integrated network of resources supports the overall care journey and helps to reduce the possibility of a case falling through the cracks.

In a series of randomized clinical trials conducted with TELUS Health, it was determined that supervised digital therapies can be just as effective as the traditional face-to-face approach when it comes to reducing patient symptoms. The flexibility and privacy of online therapy was even noted to be more effective for groups that experience higher levels of stigma surrounding therapy, such as adolescents struggling with general anxiety disorder.

Why digital tools matter

Digital therapies help make therapy more accessible and sustainable. Generally less cost prohibitive than traditional therapy, online-based psychotherapy tools present a convenient source of support for patients who would otherwise go without treatment. 

However, not all digital therapy tools are created equal. Unsupervised, asynchronous models of behavioural therapy face the challenge of keeping patients engaged, leading to a higher risk of treatment abandonment. Our program was developed based on sound evidence and rigorously tested in controlled clinical trials. By providing only a supervised model of digital therapy, we offer a self-guided option without compromising the quality of care patients deserve.

Though supporting mental health through digital means may have sounded like a sci-fi storyline just a few years ago, such advances in healthcare technology are helping to close the existing treatment gap in Canada. Patient-centric, supervised digital therapy tools like dCBT are an efficient and effective means to deliver treatment and should be considered as a powerful ally to traditional mental healthcare and pharmacology.