Is There an App for That?: Ethical Issues in the Digital Mental Health Response to COVID-19.
Well before COVID-19, there was growing excitement about the potential of various digital technologies such as tele-health, smartphone apps, or AI chatbots to revolutionize mental healthcare. As the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread across the globe, clinicians warned of the mental illness epidemic within the coronavirus pandemic. Now, funding for digital mental health technologies is surging and many researchers are calling for widespread adoption to address the mental health sequelae of COVID-19. Reckoning with the ethical implications of these technologies is urgent because decisions made today will shape the future of mental health research and care for the foreseeable future. We contend that the most pressing ethical issues concern (1) the extent to which these technologies demonstrably improve mental health outcomes and (2) the likelihood that wide-scale adoption will exacerbate the existing health inequalities laid bare by the pandemic. We argue that the evidence for efficacy is weak and that the likelihood of increasing inequalities is high. First, we review recent trends in digital mental health. Next, we turn to the clinical literature to show that many technologies proposed as a response to COVID-19 are unlikely to improve outcomes. Then, we argue that even evidence-based technologies run the risk of increasing health disparities. We conclude by suggesting that policymakers should not allocate limited resources to the development of many digital mental health tools and should focus instead on evidence-based solutions to address mental health inequalities.
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