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Are Digital Interventions Effective? Recent Meta-Analysis Says “Yes, But”

by | Jan 10, 2022 | 0 comments

Digital InterventionTechnology-based digital interventions are effective in helping people who struggle with symptoms of depression. Otherwise known as digital therapeutics, these methods include online modules and educational lessons made available through computers or phones. Compared to receiving no treatment, digital interventions provide a promising option for alleviating depression symptoms.

According to a recently published meta-analysis entitled Digital Interventions for the Treatment of Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review conducted by Moshe and colleagues, patients can access digital intervention via a computer or smartphone, providing a convenient method of receiving care.1 Similar to the increased popularity of telehealth and asynchronous interventions, digital intervention methods are an easily accessible way for many people to derive improvements in depressive symptoms and enhance their overall emotional health. They differ from telehealth and asynchronous interventions; however, they do not involve providers’ interactions. Patients can access them conveniently and interact with modules and lessons independently.

Effectiveness

The effectiveness of the entire class of digital interventions has come into question due to clients’ increased popularity and usage. Researchers want to know if it provides comparable results to in-person psychotherapy. Many clinicians are interested in the unique factors contributing to positive patient outcomes. In their meta-analysis of 83 studies, Moshe and colleagues reported that digital interventions were provided to people with mild to moderate depression symptoms to investigate whether they are as beneficial to patients as traditional mental health counseling. Researchers also examined if including human support would influence outcomes.

Across the 83 studies, digital interventions were compared using participants in an inactive control group (i.e., a waiting list, no treatment) or an active treatment method (i.e., traditional in-person psychotherapy). Participants were given homework assignments to test their knowledge of the content provided in the online learning modules. Participants completed questionnaires about their emotional concerns. Control groups also received interventions that involved human support. Clinicians utilized the questionnaires and completed homework assignments to monitor patient progress.

Promising Results of Digital Interventions

Results indicated that when compared to no treatment conditions, digital intervention is effective in providing patients with relief from depression symptoms. However, the 83-study meta-analysis is considered insufficient, as more studies are needed to compare traditional, in-person psychotherapy adequately.

However, digital interventions were found equally effective as face-to-face psychotherapy in alleviating depression symptoms. They stated:

We found no significant difference in outcomes between smartphone-based apps and computer-and Internet-based interventions and no significant difference between human-guided digital interventions and face-to-face psychotherapy for depression, although the number of studies in both comparisons was low. Findings from the current meta-analysis provide evidence for the efficacy and effectiveness of digital interventions for the treatment of depression in a variety of populations. p.1

Predictably, the addition of human support to digital therapeutics or digital interventions decreased reported symptoms of depression. More specifically, the digital interventions were more effective when clinicians provided feedback to the patient about homework assignments or when they provided technical help to patients. Researchers concluded that human interaction could motivate patients to complete online modules, resulting in better patient outcomes. Also noted is that treatment tested in a laboratory setting was more effective than in a real-world treatment. Moshe and colleagues hypothesized that this difference might be connected to the additional finding that only 25% of the participants receiving real-world treatment completed the full treatment.

These researchers concluded that digital therapeutics or interventions could be highly beneficial to patients, particularly since many patients cannot access traditional, in-person mental health services. They also suggested that this class of interventions can serve as an effective adjunct to other treatment options and should be considered by clinicians treating people with mild to moderate depression.

Please leave your thoughts, comments, and questions below.

Reference

1. Moshe, I., Terhorst, Y., Philippi, P., Domhardt, M., Cuijpers, P., Cristea, I., … & Sander, L. B. (2021). Digital interventions for the treatment of depression: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin147(8), 749.

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