Tech Trends
Four Tech Trends that will Impact EA in the Near Future
By Marina London, LCSW, CEAP


I have written in this column about the accelerating pace of technological advances impacting behavioral healthcare. Case in point, over the course of a single week, I learned of four important developments that may have an immediate, or almost immediate, impact on employee assistance.

1. Talkspace
About two years ago, I wrote a blog post about a company called Talkspace. The firm promised users that, “for $25 a week, a client can text an assigned therapist whenever they want, and the therapist texts back when he/she can. Unlimited. Anonymous.”

I was concerned that EAPs were too late to adopt new technology – especially tech that appeals to Millennials like text. Were we in danger of having the rug pulled from under us? Talkspace has received millions of dollars in venture capital funding. Not so much for employee assistance.

Two years later, Talkspace trumpets they have, “been successful in delivering more affordable and accessible care to more than 500,000 people.” Additionally, they claim to have offered their texting service “to employees at more than 40 companies through Talkspace, and the higher utilization and lower cost resulted in a 61% decrease in hours missed from work due to mental health issues.”

They have barreled into employee assistance turf and positioned themselves as a go-to workplace behavioral solution. What will be our response?

2. Robot therapists
The University of Southern California is road testing Ellie, a virtual therapist. Ellie is designed to detect signs of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in patients by tracking and responding to visual and verbal cues. The project was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to treat veterans suffering with PTSD.

Ellie’s co-creator, Professor Louis-Philippe Morency, hopes she will be useful in helping patients be more truthful in therapy, allowing them to be treated more successfully. “One advantage of using Ellie to gather behavior evidences is that people seem to open up quite easily to Ellie, given that she is a computer and is not designed to judge the person.”

“These indicators are contextualized by the questions asked by Ellie, such as whether the previous question was intimate or not?” Ellie may be adept at listening and responding, but she doesn’t offer any treatment. Morency stresses he is not a substitute for a human therapist. Rather, Ellie is used in tandem with a doctor as a data-gatherer, able to break down walls that may exist due to a patient’s unwillingness to disclose sensitive information to a human.

Morency further explains, “The behavioral indicators that Ellie identifies will be summarized to the doctor, who will integrate it as part of the treatment or therapy. Our vision is that Ellie will be a decision support tool that will help human doctors and clinicians during treatment and therapy.” Which EAP company will be the first to incorporate Ellie-like robots into their services? When in the future will Ellies be the first-line providers to respond when an employee calls their EAP?

3. The availability of genetic health risk reports without a prescription
On April 6, 2017, 23andMe, a DNA genetic testing and analysis company, announced that they were the only company authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to offer ten genetic health risk reports including late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, celiac disease, and a condition associated with harmful blood clots.

The very next day, an article, “Getting your genetic disease risks from 23andme is probably a terrible idea” was published. The article sounded an alarm, explaining:

“If you could know whether you were going to develop a debilitating, inevitable, untreatable disease at age 50, would you want to? 23andMe is offering you that opportunity — but they’re not going to ask you that question.

“The central problem is this: 23andMe aims to give you all the information you want about your genetic background, but they don’t want to be responsible if that knowledge actually affects you. Are you upset by results that indicate you’re likely to spend the last years of your life dependent on a caretaker, shaking uncontrollably, and losing the ability to speak? Talk to someone else. You’re not 23andMe’s problem anymore.

“You can’t unring that bell. [emphasis mine] And if a company is going to sell customers their right to know, they should have to provide help when that knowledge hurts.”

Who knows if and when the FDA will require companies like 23andMe (and there will surely be more), to provide genetic counseling, or even a list of organizations and individuals who provide genetic counseling. But this development is clearly an opportunity for EAPs with multiple points of engagement. 

EAPs can:
* Provide lunch-and-learn presentations or training programs that explain to employees the advantages and liabilities offered by this new frontier in medical science.
* Add genetic counselors to their existing affiliate provider lists in anticipation of this need.
* Consider offering genetic counseling as an addendum to more traditional EAP services.

4. Tele-EAP
While many EAPs struggle to get a toe into tele-therapy, companies offering behaviorally related tele-platforms are proliferating. Because more and more employees comfortably use Facetime and Skype in their personal lives, they have a corresponding comfort with accessing help online. It’s convenient, and eliminates transportation costs. Check out skytherapist.com and inpathy.com. 

How long before these players directly market themselves to companies as EAP-like products?  Aetna’s Teladoc app offers employees video healthcare. How long before the insurance giant offers a Tele-EAP? The infrastructure is already in place.

Marina London is Manager of Web Services for EAPA and author of iWebU (http://www.iwebu.info), a weekly blog for mental health and EA professionals who are challenged by social media and Internet technologies. She previously served as an executive for several national EAP and managed mental health care firms. She can be reached at m.london@eapassn.org

References

23andMe (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.23andme.com 

Aetna Teladoc app. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.teladoc.com

Chodosh, S. (2017, April 7). “Getting your genetic disease risks from 23andme is probably a terrible idea” [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.popsci.com/23andme-is-probably-terrible-idea.

Inpathy.com. (n.c.) Retrieved from https://inpathy.com/how-it-works/types-of-care/

iWebU.info (2015, April 29). Web Secret #360: Talkspace. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.iwebu.info/2015/04/web-secret-360-talkspace.html 

iWebU.info (2016, December 21). Web Secret #446: skytherapist.com [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.iwebu.info/2016/12/web-secret-446-skytherapistcom.html 

iWebU.info (2017, May 17). Web Secret #467: Slouching towards Gattaca [Blog post]. Retrieved from 
 http://www.iwebu.info/2017/web-secret-467-slouching-towards-gattaca

Jolly, N. (2016, October 1). Meet Ellie: the robot therapist treating soldiers with PTSD [Blog post]. Retrieved fromhttp://www.news.com.au/technology/innovation/meet-ellie-the-robot-therapist-treating-soldiers-with-ptsd/news-story/0201fa7cf336c609182cffd637deef00  

Morath, E. (2016, February 18). Gig economy attracts many workers, few full-time jobs [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2016/02/18/gig-economy-attracts-many-workers-few-full-time-jobs/ 

SimSensei. (2017). University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. Retrieved from http://ict.usc.edu/prototypes/simsensei/