Healthcare startups aim to gauge emotion with mobile tech

Oftentimes a proper diagnosis relies not so much on what a patient says as on what he or she shows.

That’s the premise behind a new wave of startups and entrepreneurs looking to make an impact in healthcare. They’re developing mobile technology designed to analyze emotions, studying vocal and visual clues as well as physiological factors.

[See also: Telehealth puts patients at center]

The idea is to pick up signs that a patient might not recognize or be willing to express.

“It’s the dawn of time for that particular technology,” says Joseph Kvedar, MD, founder and director of the Center for Connected Health, part of Partners HealthCare. “There’s so much sensitivity to the role that mental health plays in our healthcare.”

“It’s absolutely brand-new, very much experimental,” adds Meghan Searl, PhD, a psychologist with Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, who sees a future for the technology in detecting depression and mood swings. "It's a very nuanced and complex field, so a lot of validation work has to be done."

[See also: Diabetes texting program gets a boost]

Kvedar says the technology looks to address "the psychology of connected health," which might try to measure moods much as a nurse would take one's vital signs. Mobile and wireless technology would certainly help, he says, if the argument could be made that a psychological sensor is as reliable as a blood-pressure cuff or blood-glucose monitor.

Mental health disorders rank among the top health problems worldwide in terms of cost to society. Depression affects 16 percent of adults, or 32 million people, and is significantly higher in people diagnosed with a chronic condition – between 40 percent and 60 percent of those diagnosed with a chronic condition also suffer from depression, according to recent studies.

Those same studies indicate that as much as 85 percent of people diagnosed with a chronic condition aren't correctly diagnosed with depression, and that less than one-fourth of individuals experiencing depression receive appropriate treatment.

One of the companies trying to solve that dilemma is Cogito, based in Charlestown, Mass., which has been working since 2008 to develop “Honest Signals” technology that measures patient engagement, either through phone conversations or face-to-face encounters. Company CEO Joshua Feast says the idea was first launched in advertising circles to measure how people react to sales pitches or commercials, and is now making its way into population health management.

“We’re co-developing systems that basically will analyze relevant interactions between an organization and its patients,” he says. “What we’re really trying to do here is have more successful interactions.”