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The Digitization of Mental Health Care

We Spoke to Sam Duboc About BEACON's Mental Health Approach

— January 30, 2019 — Business
If anyone could figure out how to find quality mental health care, it would be Sam Duboc -- a self-described “serial entrepreneur” with experience serving on the board at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation. However, when Sam found himself depressed, he struggled to access quality care. As a seasoned business professional, and someone who understands the nuances of mental health, Sam worked to find solutions that could streamline the current mental health care system in a way that was accessible, and patient-centric. In doing so, Sam turned to the digital world and co-created BEACON -- a modern mental health care system that bridges the online and offline worlds, offering customized care plans that have a stunning success rate among users. Trend Hunter had the opportunity to speak with Sam Duboc to discuss the ways in which technology is being used to overcome the barriers the current mental health care system faces.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

I’m a serial entrepreneur. I started Air Miles in Canada, which is what brought me here. Since then, I’ve started a number of other businesses including EdgeStone Capital, and Pathways Education and LEAP. I’ve also worked in the Federal Government in the Department of Business and Finance. I’ve been very fortunate in my career.

In the middle of the 2000s I was on the board of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the CAMH Foundation. I had learned all the theoretical aspects of mental health, depression, anxiety and how prevalent it was, but being a kid from the Midwest, I didn't think it applied to me - until it did. More specifically, it applied to me on October 18th, 2011. I got a call saying my brother had passed away and I had two heart operations in the previous 16 months. I woke up a few weeks later depressed, so I began my search for help. I’d been on the board of CAMH Foundation, I knew who to call, I had enough money to pay in the private sector, and I knew exactly what I wanted. But, for me, it was hard to get evidence-based, quality help.

We discovered it was a messed up situation, and one thing I like in business is a messed up situation. After partnering with two psychologists, we decided to fix it by making mental health care ubiquitous, easy to use, and accessible. That drove us to the digital world.

Technology has numerous benefits, but can you speak to any of the downsides to technology?

The downsides are obvious. Look at social media where you compare yourself to the best moments from everyone else’s life. I know the Instagram effect has been widely discussed. Now the ubiquity of technology and the speed at which you can attack, with both real and false news, is so devastating that the body has no time to react and contextualize. It can be unbelievably devastating to everybody, but especially those who don't have enough lived experience to put these things into context.

What are some misconceptions people have about technology’s ability to thrive in mental health care? How do you overcome these barriers?

We hear that technology can’t solve anything because there’s no humanity to it, people ask “how can it understand feelings?” Now, there’s no denying that psychologists play a very important role in the solution. The professionals we have in North America are terrific and their roles are very important. But over 75% of mental health afflictions are mood & anxiety disorders of the mild-moderate-mildly severe range. This range has been proven, with hundreds of studies, that protocol-driven treatment like CBT has as good as, or better outcomes than the drugs. You learn life skills, so it's long-lasting. So what we did with BEACON, is we made a digital version of cognitive behavioral therapy, with a couple interesting changes.

There's no doubt that the therapist has a big role, not only helping you understand what's happening but in keeping you motivated, so we've added a full-time therapist to this. So you log onto BEACON, you get your own therapist. And this therapist isn't a bot, it's a person that sticks with you. The second thing is that we made it so every week we’re measuring outcomes, so we know - and these are validated measures - how well you are progressing through the system. Additionally, if you’re not doing well in the current treatment, we’ll move you to a different clinic, or move you to a different treatment. So really, the concept that we can specifically tailor this is a huge part of the digital experience.

Finally, any mental health survey you look at - including the survey we did in which we spoke with 1,000 clinically depressed people - around 70-80% of the world won't go see a person. So, you can solve the 20% who will go see a person, but the fact of the matter is that most people won’t, and there's many barriers in a lot of cases. If you live in the North there might not be a therapist nearby, treatment can be very expensive, and what we've been able to do is we're eliminating these barriers. We've eliminated the barrier of time because you can use it when, where and how you want to. You can do it from your house or the gym, and the cost of BEACON is low as 10% of the cost of traditional psychology.

How does digital therapy differ from more traditional forms?

Digital therapy and the way we practice it is protocol-driven. Think of it as life skills coaching course. It really relies on you to do the work, and to put the effort in. It is not talk therapy - think of it as taking a course on learning how to deal with your anxiety, or your depression so you learn to deal with your thoughts and emotions on your bad days. It teaches you to really test your thoughts. In that same vein, my personal goal is that BEACON, or a form of BEACON, will be successful in every class, or every high school in North America. I want CBT to be taught because they are life skills that teach you how to deal with emotions, so the way to avoid problems in the 20s and 30s is to teach people upfront how to deal with it, same way we teach people upfront how to read and write. That way, when the tough times come - and they come to all of us - you'll have the life skills to help you get through those situations.

With technology rapidly growing, what do you envision for the industry in the next 5-10 years?

I think it's going to be a fantastic change for the better. If you look at mental health, it's becoming more acceptable to talk about. I think technology is providing a very safe environment that's allowing us to begin to do that. Today, there are thousands of apps that range from checking your daily mood, to platforms like ours that focus on treatment. There's this whole spectrum or eco-system of mental health options.

The health system in Canada puts the provider in the center of the circle. Really that should be flipped around so we can discuss what's best for the patient. What technology is allowing us to do is provide all of those - whether you need peer-to-peer, or psycho-education, or a quick course on dealing with stress. Technology allows us to flip it, to put the individual in the center to provide a terrific customized, informed path to help people get better, and stay better.

We're in a world that's focused on remediation. My vision and my goal is to flip it from that to work toward proactive prevention.