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In today’s connected world, digital products have to entice, excite and entertain to keep our attention. There’s an app for everything: Ordering a ride-share, purchasing groceries and even for monitoring your home. We can’t deny that this technology inspires us to continue to innovate. It reduces friction in our day-today lives, and makes it easy to connect more efficiently and conveniently. The downside is that these apps can be addictive.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a saturation of apps focused on wellness and mental health because there’s a need for the accessibility they bring. However, many of these tools are created with haste and without considering the potential consequences on users’ lives. The underlying goal is to get the consumer to stay on the app as much as possible by conditioning users to rely on the app to make them feel better — obsessing over likes, follower counts, and refreshing news feeds.
What if tech industry changed the paradigm and put authenticity first by creating more intentionally, rather than providing users with a product? “quick fix?” There are steps that both consumers and the technology industry can take to avoid falling prey to these addictive apps.
The perfect storm: Convenience and self-diagnosis combined in one package
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a significant investment in telemedicine startups as the government waived in-office visits for prescriptions of controlled substances to help with diagnoses like ADHD — and telehealth apps capitalized on this opportunity immensely. Within months, people were convinced that a 30 second video could diagnose ADHD and give them access the services that would prescribe medication.
The telehealth boom exploded, and people started to share their neurodiversity experiences on social media. Although social media is a great way to connect with others and build support networks, it has also made neurodiversity somewhat of a trend. The hashtag has been popularized on TikTok as the best place for younger people to learn more about neurodiversity. “ADHD” alone has more than 14 billion views — many of which come from viral videos of misinformation and stereotypical insight. Even though these apps are intended to be helpful, the conversations they have can create barriers for the 70 millions people with learning and thought differences.
While some companies that offer telehealth services have been criticized for prescribing ADHD medication in an unsupervised manner, their impact has been deep-rooted and lasting. They’ve positively identified a pain point and unmet needs around evaluations and access, which is why there’s so much talk about them on these platforms. Although we do need the speed that telehealth apps have started to provide, offering access can not and should not come with addictiveness when it’s a matter of people’s health.
Health apps: Prioritizing people rather than profit
Apps can be detrimental if they are designed to maximize profit and provide access. Companies should proceed cautiously when creating products that aren’t serving the community’s best interests, and creators of these apps must take a moment to evaluate how to bridge accessibility and speed with credibility and the inherent desire to help people.
Anything that tends to favor the quick fix or answer over being more responsible with the individual’s life is dangerous. This could lead to people feeling worse or make them mishandle real issues.
Companies should conduct clinical trials before scaling up digital solutions. This will ensure that their products are evidence-based, and have no long-term implications. Companies should be collecting feedback from users to ensure they are ready for any course corrections. In medicine, “do no harm” is a core principle for many physicians, and health tech companies’ number one goal should always be to better serve the patient and do what is best for the individual, not for the bottom line.
Consumer due diligence
Tech companies have to improve, but consumers can also take action.
It is important for consumers to assess what they want to accomplish by turning to apps or services that support learning differences and thinking differences. You should look out for a thorough vetting process that involves healthcare professionals being closely screened and a high platform quality that is HIPAA-compliant. The biggest thing to keep in mind: Don’t look for quick fixes of any kind. What are the solutions and options being offered? Are there experts and forums available? Or is prescription medication the only solution?
Consumers can also reflect on how they use apps and what it does to them. If they feel more anxious or addicted after repeated usage of the app, perhaps it’s time to take a break. Focus on the fact that they are getting the help and then let go of the phone and engage with the outside world.
Telehealth companies and social media are not going away. If anything, we’ll see a continued drive toward innovation in medicine and technology through similar products in the future. These innovations have allowed us to be more creative and thoughtful about how people can access health care. But there are still valid concerns. Technology leaders must put patients at the centre of everything we do. They trust us with their health. It’s on us to help them, not hurt them.
Jenny Wu is co-president of the company and chief product officer. Understood.org.
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