From Garmin and Apple Watches for exercise and sleep tracking to MyFitnessPal to count calories and macronutrients, data from smartphones can say a lot about a user.
The Eugene-based mental health startup Ksana Health wants its new mental health platform, Vira, to use that data to make therapy visits more effective. Company co-founders say Vira could provide a digital update to the mental health industry, which they call an outdated process. They say that although Vira is in its pilot phase, the program could eventually cut down on mental health crises and save time for mental health practitioners.
In a typical counseling session, patients go to the office (or Zoom in) and report whatever issues are at the top of their minds or, if it’s an enterprising patient, then from a journal, says Ksana Health co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Will Shortt. For that brief appointment, he says, the patients report issues that are affecting them — from food consumption to activity and social interaction.
Ksana Health’s Vira helps get therapy out of the office and into the daily lives of patients, he adds.
Co-founder and CEO Nick Allen, Ph.D., says Ksana Health’s Vira platform could change that patient-therapist relationship, thanks to smartphone data. “The whole idea is to use the data that people are generating anyway and make them useful so people can get feedback,” he says. “Use that to support them to make positive behavioral changes and do it outside the regular office hours.”
The app is starting its pilot phase through health care giant Anthem’s digital incubator program. Allen says during Vira’s pilot program he plans to invite around 100 users from a few clinics in the Northeast, specifically Massachusetts and New Hampshire. From there, the company will slowly increase invitations as it tweaks the program.
Since the app is in the pilot phase, the platform is invite-only. But if the platform expands, users will download an app which then collects data from smartphone programs that track GPS movement, fitness activity, nutrition, screen time — and more — to capture a patient’s mental health state.
The platform even logs a user’s keyboard, but Allen says it’s not recording or reading text messages. Instead, he notes, the Vira app analyzes the mood of words being used. He says it detects sentiment — such as positive or negative tone — and patterns that reflect the way people think.
“I mean like subtle patterns in the way you think of things,” he adds. “And they could be very informative for the therapist and the person themself.”
Allen admits that users struggle to log on to apps consistently, so the app only asks users to answer two daily questions: “How much did you enjoy yesterday?” and “How much did you grow?”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health practitioners relied on remote technology such as Zoom to meet with patients. So it’s likely that there will be some sort of digital aspect to mental health services from now on, Allen says.
Mental health practitioners are busy with paperwork, and Allen says Vira could help them free up their schedule. The program uses artificial intelligence to write a rough draft of the meeting notes. “Clinicians’ main concern is that they need more time,” he says. “What the platform does is allows us to automate some of the processes that aren’t that complicated but are time-consuming.”
In addition to co-founding Ksana, Allen is a clinical psychologist and the director of the University of Oregon’s Center for Digital Mental Health. He says the company doesn’t intend to replace mental health therapists with an app. “What we’re trying to do is give practitioners and their patients tools that help them to do what they’re supposed to do — better,” he adds.
Ksana Health recently received $2 million in seed funding, an effort led by re.Mind Capital, a subsidiary of Apeiron Investment Group, a firm that invests in tech companies. Allen says the seed money will help Ksana through the year as it hires mostly local employees and develops Vira into an app that people will want to use.
When Vira is ready for more patients, Ksana Health is going to target large organizations, Allen says. It plans to offer enrollment to the Vira program to organizations such as education, insurance providers and public agencies like Lane County, he adds.
“These are the systems that benefit when the system is more effective,” Allen says. “They benefit because people don’t need as much in-depth treatment, they don’t need expensive kinds of treatment, which are associated with crises.”
A mental health crisis not only causes damage to a patient’s personal life, he says, but also has high costs. During a crisis, a person will go through expensive treatment, including inpatient treatment and emergency care, he says, and it could involve law enforcement and the courts. And it’s disruptive to families, he adds.
“You’re really helping them in avoiding a really horrible experience, which often is quite damaging to their well-being in an ongoing way,” he says.