University of Utah Physician Set to Launch App Tackling Mental Health Crises

(Courtesy of MoodPal)

(Courtesy of MoodPal)

By Angelyn Ramos

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A report from the Center of Disease Controlin 2017 found that the second leading cause of death in American adolescents (ages 15-19) was suicide. According to another study put out by the CDC, Utah has had a 46.5% increase in suicides since 1999, which makes Utah the fifth most suicidal state in the nation. Even more alarming is the rate of teen suicide in Utah. In 2018, within one high school, seven students had died by suicide. In 2016, it was declared that the leading cause of death among children between the ages of 11-17 was suicide. These numbers pale in comparison to international statistics regarding mental health and suicide. This fact, however, brings to attention an even more alarming statistic: the majority of international suicides are in fact never documented as most are ruled as “accidental deaths,” which may be due, in part, to cultural stigmas and attitudes regarding mental health.

Dr. Alexander Au, a mental health advocate, member of the Global Mental Health Initiative and CEO of MoodPal, noticed and experienced this problem first hand. Au took the lack of true mental health data very seriously, and in 2016 he set out to change the status quo. Originally partnered with Bench-To-Bedside, a University of Utah program that allows students to create, develop and fund their own medical innovations, Au collaborated with two other students — Mark Van der Merwe and Tarun Sunkaraneni —to launch MoodPal. MoodPal is a multifaceted and comprehensive physician and patient app that combines the features of “mood trending, social connection, personalized media, and daily check-ins” to improve emotional intelligence and provide visual data regarding an individual’s mental health progress. 

Often when a patient visits a medical professional with issues regarding mental health, they are given a prescription and told to return within four to six weeks to discuss any progress (or lack thereof). MoodPal allows a patient and their physician to access the app and its data in real-time, allowing collaborative efforts regarding treatment plans for an individual’s mental health. MoodPal includes a feature on the patient’s end where they can check-in daily to track their mood and any reflections they may have. Over time, this data will begin to create charts that track their mental status which gives patients the opportunity to visually see their progress. From the physician’s end, they will be notified when one of their patients has completed their daily entry, and they then have the opportunity to respond to that entry. Additionally, there is a feature that allows the physician to remind their patient to complete their daily check-in if it hasn’t yet been completed in the day. These are just some of the unique and specifically curated features on the MoodPal app. 

I am hoping to have everything in phase two (launching use in a clinic) by the end of this year … The program will be launched in beta mode,” Au said. “The importance of introducing a tool into any system is being able to work on improvements. I want to make this app easily integrated and become an effortless part of a clinic’s protocol. I do not expect us to be doing too much testing, because most of our work is focused on the initial planning stages with the clinics. Involving them in the creation of the functionalities of the app makes it so we can all see the same vision and aim for the same goals.”

Au has high hopes for the launch of MoodPal. I hope this will provide access to mental health providers and resources for patients who need it. I hope the launch will show people that mental health is important and that healthcare providers are dedicated to taking care of our communities both physically and mentally,” he said. “I also hope that the initiative gains interest and support from foundations, academic centers, world organizations, and leaders to expand our work.” 

Au has been invited by the U.N. to speak in New York on Oct. 10, World Mental Health day, about MoodPal and the continuation of his work. Au will be “continuing strengthening relationships with organizations like the U.N. and WHO to continue working towards helping citizens of the world.”


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