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Schizophrenia and Smartphones: Separating Speculation From Science

Schizophrenia and Smartphones: Separating Speculation From Science


Schizophrenia is a severe mental illness characterized by symptoms that may include delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized thoughts or speech. The global disability, suffering, and economic impact of schizophrenia highlights the need for innovations in the diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment of this disease. Is there a role for smartphones and mobile technology to advance the care of patients with schizophrenia?

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With the rapid expansion of mobile health (mHealth) technologies, there has been an increased interest in the potential of smartphone health apps for schizophrenia. It is easy to imagine how smartphones could enable patients to record their symptoms in real time using brief, pop-up surveys (active data). Additionally, these phone could collect passive data about their activity patterns (from GPS sensors), social connectedness (from anonymized call and text logs), and voice tone (from microphones).

From this data, algorithms could be developed for analysis, in order to potentially predict relapse and even discover patterns of psychological well-being, which psychiatrists and patients could review together. Perhaps in the future, smartphones could also serve as powerful adjuvants that help patients with medication adherence, physical activity, and even digital therapies in supporting their clinical care.

Without clinical data and scientific studies, however, such models of the future will remain just that—models. Smartphone apps for schizophrenia must be supported by a strong research base that informs discussions on validity of mobile data, efficacy of intervention, risks, benefits, and adverse effects.

App-based interventions may at first appear to present zero risk—but what if app use occupies so much time and attention that patients spend more time in front of a screen than outside and active? Or what if any app offers incorrect medical advice? Furthermore, just because we can collect so much information from smartphones does not inherently mean that it is clinically useful. For example, an electroencephalogram (EEG) can collect millions of data points about neural activity and brain waves, although this is not routinely used in health care services, because the implications for treatment from these observations are limited. Finally, will these patients even want to use technology such as smartphone apps or wearable sensors in their care?

A summary of data
To begin to answer these questions, we conducted a systematic review of the published literature on the role of smartphones for schizophrenia.1 We included those papers with quantifiable outcome data. We identified only 7 studies to date, with most studies being pilot in nature. These 7 studies provide an interesting window into the potential for smartphones in schizophrenia, and the path for future research.


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