Why we need experts to ensure science is baked into health technology


The pandemic sped the adoption of digital technology and rocket-fueled the medical apps market. Digital health technologies are one of the most significant needs worldwide, with many of us turning to them to help us manage our own health and that of our family members. These same technologies can help us to connect – and maintain our connection – with the clinicians who provide our care.

But while these apps are proliferating, most are not anchored in frameworks and guidelines that are based on scientific evidence.

Clinical claims, sometimes supported by the product’s “metrics”, are easy to make, but scratch beneath the surface and too often the empirical evidence is not there to back those claims up.

Consider a recent review of 293 commercially-available apps for anxiety and / or depression. The researchers found that only 18 had published evidence supporting their efficacy.

These apps may be available through online stores, but it’s time to play catch up and call out products that are, at best, over-stating their value, and at worst, causing harm.

Today, organizations like the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) have developed assessment frameworks that evaluate an app’s clinical claims, effectiveness, user desirability, security and privacy and usability.

The importance of a solid clinical framework

I’m a psychiatrist and before medical school I completed my BSc in Pharmacy.

Over 25 years of providing psychiatric care, my pharmacy training has been invaluable, creating opportunities to advance my profession.

I’ve participated in guideline and standards development, provided continuing medical education(CME) programs to my colleagues, and reviewed the quality of “innovative medical technologies”.

Through these varied experiences, I’ve learned that any innovation must start with a solid clinical framework. And, as you build the technology, you must evaluate its effectiveness.

Rigorous metrics, developed with integrity, should be the cornerstone of any medical innovation, whether it’s a medication, a psychological therapy or a new technology.

I’m currently leading an incredible team, which is tackling one of the greatest challenges in primary care:  improving access to high-quality mental healthcare.

Through this process, I’ve realized that while I carry a whole lot of clinical expertise around in my brain, I’m not a technology expert, let alone a seasoned leader of a healthtech startup.

I’ve learned that knowing what you don’t know is an important asset, as it led me to bring in partners whose core values aligned with our team’s – partners we could trust to hold us to the highest standards of clinical evidence.

Whether developing CME or clinical treatment guidelines, or providing clinical care, I’ve consumed more research papers than I could possibly have imagined. Staying on top of the research can be overwhelming, but evaluating the good from the sub-par or the just plain bad is part of my job. But doing the research, appropriately measuring and evaluating the quality, efficacy, safety, or tolerability of a treatment or innovation, requires specific expertise.

Bringing clinical experts to the table starts on day 1

For our healthtech startup, we started by bringing clinical experts to the table, developing a process to gather and evaluate the clinical evidence and standards.

We were fortunate to be introduced to the team at the Ontario Brain Institute, a group with the latest brain research at the tip of their fingers and the talent to help inform our research and validation strategy. Their goal, to accelerate evidence-based brain health solutions, and their values, were fully aligned with our own. To develop the most effective technology solution to deliver meaningful patient outcomes we needed an altruistic team with nothing at stake other than seeing meaningful impact on mental healthcare.

OBI has been a foundational partner in asking the big questions, holding our feet to the fire, and making sure that clinical validation was baked into the very DNA of our project. This approach is not only in keeping with our need to demonstrate the evidence that informs the software but also to develop an ongoing framework for studies, metrics, and proofs of concept, to ensure we are capturing the highest quality data. This approach has de-risked the project from the outset, ensuring that what we build passes the very high bar that is set for clinical effectiveness.

With this healthtech start-up, my credibility as a physician is on the line. I must do my best to ensure it’s unsurpassed in terms of quality. Partners like OBI are helping me shoulder that burden. We are very grateful to have OBI as part of the brain health ecosystem in Canada. They are playing a valuable role in ensuring that good quality science gets translated to patient impact.

This blog post is part of a series looking at the state of our mental healthcare system and ways we can create sustainable change to improve quality and outcomes for anyone impacted by mental illness. 

Interested in how we can harness the power of tech for good? You can listen also to my conversation with Sue Paish, CEO of the Canadian Digital Technology Super Cluster on the WickedMind podcast. This conversation covers how tech and science and business teams can work together. 


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