Cover Esha Oberoi

Healthcare entrepreneur Esha Oberoi shares how AI-led platforms can bring critical support to people who need help, wherever they may be

We are in the midst of a global mental health crisis. In March, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25 per cent in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, with young people and women most affected.

All of us have experienced an unprecedented level of stress as we grapple with challenges including social isolation, increased domestic responsibilities and working hours that grow ever longer. Although disruptions to healthcare services have eased, WHO reports that “too many” are still unable to access the mental healthcare they need. Interestingly, it also found that people increasingly seek support online, “signalling an urgent need to make reliable and effective digital tools available and easily accessible.”

Having lived through debilitating depression, I know how important it is to receive effective support in time—which is unfortunately not the case for most people. Even before the pandemic, one in eight people globally was living with a mental health condition, but the minimum waiting time to access mental healthcare is six weeks; this extends to over six months in rural communities. Long waiting times can also lead to other problems. In Australia, where I’m based, we’ve observed more instances of antidepressants being prescribed prematurely because healthcare services are under strain.

The healthcare ecosystem as it is currently can be fragmented, expensive and inefficient. Put simply, it doesn’t meet the inherent needs of its stakeholders. Fortunately, technology like artificial intelligence (AI) can make up for the gaps by complementing human-led support and providing tools in between sessions to scale care. This is why I founded Leora, a virtual self-care companion launching this month.

Bringing mental healthcare to those who need it most

In Asia, cultural stigmas persist against those seeking help for mental issues. A platform that provides anonymous, round-the-clock, AI-powered chat services and clinically-proven therapeutic techniques, can help those in need receive support before they take the bigger step of speaking with a therapist.

AI-led chatbots are particularly useful in countries like India. With a population of more than 1 billion people, some of the world’s highest suicide rates per capita and only 4000 psychologists available, we can see how urgently scalable solutions are required.

So it’s important that tech-healthcare solutions empower people to take charge of their mental health. For example, Leora offers users a generalised anxiety disorder assessment typically used by therapists when they first meet with clients. Completing this allows users to better understand their current mental state and make better informed decisions about which treatments to pursue. Leora is also based on proven therapeutic techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy, a widely used approach that helps people to reframe negative thought patterns. It also offers mindfulness, meditation and breathwork activities.

Crucially, AI can help with triage and early intervention, detecting and helping cases with low-to-mild anxiety and depression before they become more serious. It can also help people at risk. Leora contains a crisis detection model in which certain words will immediately trigger it to suggest connecting with a therapist or emergency health services.

The rapid evolution of AI-led healthcare

While we’re still a ways from chatbots that are indistinguishable from humans, we are already at a point where we can leverage AI and natural language programming to understand basic user intent.

Digital cognitive behavioural therapy has been around for a long time, but AI can add value by improving the delivery of e-mental health tools so that instead of being static and non-engaging, they are delivered in real-time, and are interactive and engaging for users. With responses and content written by trained psychologists, Leora can “speak” and connect with users in a natural, engaging and conversational way. This ability is constantly improving because AI can be trained to become better at assessing user intent, providing predictive analytics and creating faster, more accurate diagnoses. We also plan to develop algorithms for Leora that can match an individual’s unique needs and preferences (like language or culture) to the right therapist and specialisation.

As the demand for healthcare continues to surge, I see AI transitioning from stagnant, rule-based systems to applications that are complex forms of machine-learning involving deep-learning algorithms. The next wave of transformation will come from using de-identified data (data from which all personally identifiable information has been removed), so that practitioners and government agencies have more data that they can use to identify trends and predict health outcomes more effectively.

AI complements human services

AI-led healthcare platforms like Leora are not meant to replace human professionals. Instead they are designed to complement and enhance human-led services. They offer complete transparency and are a valuable source of real-time data and symptom information that practitioners can use for quicker interventions. This large volume of data also helps machine-learning models improve treatments at a much faster rate than traditional methods of transferring knowledge. AI-driven platforms like Leora can also be used to work on lower-risk mental issues, freeing up therapists to spend more time on pressing, complex cases. This in turn benefits governments by reducing the fiscal pressures from an overworked and fragmented healthcare system.

Finally, AI-led healthcare technology can help us to maintain our mental health the way we do our physical health. We take regular care of our bodies by exercising, watching our diets or using related apps and fitness trackers. Similarly, instead of waiting for a traumatic event like a panic attack to occur, we can and should use the digital tools that are already available to care for our mental health on a regular basis.

Esha Oberoi is CEO and founder of Afea Care Services, one of Australia’s most successful private in-home aged and disability care services. The award-winning entrepreneur’s latest venture is Leora, a psychologist-designed, AI-led chatbot that supports users’ mental health.

This piece is part of a collaboration between Tatler Asia and Young Presidents’ Organisation (YPO), a global leadership community of chief executives, which counts more than 30,000 members from 142 countries among its members.

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