The Mental Health Center of Denver: The human side of tech

The Mental Health Center of Denver: The human side of tech

Dr Wes Williams, Chief Information Officer of the Mental Health Center of Denver, tells us how technology could make Denver the healthiest city in Ameri...

 Dr Wes Williams wants Denver to be the healthiest city in America. His role in this, as Chief Information Officer of the Mental Health Center of Denver, is to lead on technologies that play an instrumental part in supporting the city’s most vulnerable. But in the course of a wide-ranging interview, Williams also speaks enthusiastically about how innovation has benefited the people who work at the organisation. 

Making telemedicine work: the transition to remote treatments

In Colorado, the Covid-19 pandemic has not only taken a toll on people’s mental health; it has also created unprecedented challenges for the clinics that provide them with care. Even for an organisation that prides itself on its innovative approaches, the transition from in-person therapies to telemedicine hasn’t been easy. Dr Williams admits that when the organisation was forced to bring all of its services online - which it managed to achieve in two days - putting the technology in place was only the start of the process. “You can get sucked into thinking that the tech itself is the solution. But the reality is that it’s only the easy part. It took a lot more work to figure out how to really do that work - how to make everything happen”.

Dr Williams feels that in some ways the upheaval could have been a blessing in disguise. “The takeaway for me is that if you practice something, you can figure it out. We've had the chance to really practice and learn how to do this well. That's been the silver lining. And from a telemedicine standpoint, I'm optimistic that even when it's safe to go back into clinics, some folks are going to choose to continue to receive their care via telemedicine, because it's more convenient”. To illustrate his idea, he mentions that since patients have been attending appointments remotely, the number of no-shows has decreased by almost a third. 

Innovative technologies for mental health treatments

The Mental Health Center of Denver harnesses technologies in ways that truly make a difference to people’s lives. Before its clinics were closed, it had introduced virtual reality (VR) into its therapy sessions and mindfulness classes. Dr Williams believes that VR is a perfect fit for what the sessions are aiming to achieve: “What's great about VR compared with any other cognitive behavioural therapy is that it's so immersive. It sort of tricks your mind into being right there. And I think that is especially impactful for things like mindfulness, and exposure therapy”.

Another of the Center’s ambitious projects is a supported employment programme, which helps people suffering from serious mental illness to find work. The Center liaises with both patients and potential employers in order to set up placements, and Dr Williams talks passionately about the benefits that this brings. “I think that it’s a special part of our organisation. There's a lot to be said for going back to work, and having that sense of meaning in your day”. The Centre is involved in the IT aspects of the programme, and developed an app that helps staff cultivate new placements. So far, over 160 people have found work through this scheme.

The Center has also used IT to make the programme work more efficiently for the people who coordinate it. Dr Williams explains: “Previously the staff working on our supported employment programme had to spend a lot of time just doing reports. But we have been able to automate a lot of the bureaucracy and paperwork - and that feels good, because it means that they have time to spend actually working with people, instead of filling out forms”.

Maximising the potential of healthcare technologies

Dr Williams’ success in making a difference with healthcare technologies hasn’t gone unnoticed. In July he received an ORBIE award at the Colorado CIO of the Year Awards, for his work at a corporate organisation. Talking about the lessons that larger organisations could learn from how the Mental Health Center of Denver manages its resources, he stresses that clear-headedness counts for more than deep pockets. “In order to really do something unique and innovative, we can’t wait until we have finished everything else. It’s about taking that vision and figuring out: given my limited resources, how should I line things up?” But he is most keen to credit the people who have allowed the Center to be a pioneer in innovative solutions: “I really like the staff here. They have a culture of innovation - they’re used to doing things differently clinically; used to figuring out what works. When we have good people, we can take that same innovative approach to technology, and how might that help with healthcare”.

When it comes to new innovations, the Centre looks outwards as well as inwards; but Dr Williams points out that it doesn’t have to look far. “One of the things that's really special about Colorado is there's a lot of collaboration within healthcare. Every other month there’s a meeting of hospital and healthcare CIOs. We talk about the different challenges we have faced, and how we handled the situations. And this feels special, because in this landscape our organisations are all sort of competing, but people are still willing to share”.

How will we see telemedicine develop in future? “This is a really interesting time. What I'm hoping is that everything we've learned about telehealth during the pandemic takes root in healthcare, and really explodes”.

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