Filling an unmet need in cancer care?

The United States continues to face a mental health crisis.

Patients with cancer may be at particular risk. Studies show that nearly 40% of cancer patients have clinically significant psychiatric complications and 50% have reported significant distress.

However, there are not enough mental health professionals to meet the need. More than half of US states lack a psychiatrist, and 15% of cancer centers do not offer mental health services.

That’s where digital therapy apps can fill a gap.

In recent years, dozens of mental health apps — some requiring a prescription from a doctor — have become available.

Blue Note Therapeutics, for example, has developed a suite of free programs specifically for people with cancer.

Attune, the company’s flagship app, is the first and only prescription digital therapy app designed to help cancer patients manage symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Attune offers 10 self-management sessions based on evidence-based cognitive stress management techniques, offering strategies for patients to become more aware of what they can and cannot control in their lives. The program also offers exercises to deal with anxiety, depression and anger.

During a session, patients can record a stress score, monitor sleep and participate in relaxation exercises. The goal is to provide patients with the mental health support they may need at any given time.

Blue Note is currently conducting a clinical trial to examine how effectively Attune and another of its digital therapy software, Cerena, improve anxiety in cancer patients. The study, which will be shown, will involve 352 patients with stage I-III cancer who have increased anxiety symptoms.

The demand for this type of program seems to be significant. “In just over 5 months, over 18,000 patients expressed interest in participating in the clinical trial,” said Sean Zion, Ph.D., director of behavioral science research at Blue Note.

Sivan Rotenberg, PhD, a clinical health psychologist at Dartmouth Health, sees value in prescribing a mental health app for cancer patients who may struggle to access personalized care. Additionally, digital therapy apps can take some of the workload off doctors.

“I have a number of oncology patients who are using digital therapies and are really finding great benefit from it,” Rotenberg said.

Some of her patients use these therapeutic programs while in the infusion suite. The programs guide them through meditation or breathing exercises to help them relax during treatment, she said.

“It’s a lot more impressive than me running around the infusion set trying to do it,” she said.

Another benefit: It can reach patients at the moment they need help.

“I know myself and other therapists, we were at some point recording and sending[ing] to patients, or I would find videos on YouTube,” Rotenberg said. “Putting it all together in an app is a way to make it easier for us, which I really appreciate.”

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