The positive role of technology in treating agoraphobia

Technology platforms such as EHRs, patient portals and telemedicine software have helped improve communication between providers and patients, particularly those based in underserved or rural areas, who may not be able to seek medical services in person at a physician's office or hospital. 

Underserved populations, according to a report from the University of Texas Medical Branch Telemedicine and Center for Telehealth Research and Policy, are composed of individuals who are typically unable to make in-person visits on account of varying factors such as a lack of funds, lower health literacy, limited physical mobility and geographical distance. In some rural areas of the country, such as parts of Texas, patients may be located hours away from their nearest providers - particularly specialists. The report elaborated that telemedicine platforms have been effective in helping these individuals, ensuring that more receive medical services, which helps improve outcomes as a corollary.

Another group of individuals who can possibly be classed as underserved are those living with mental illness, and particularly a form of anxiety disorder known as agoraphobia. An illness characterized by an intense fear of being in places that may induce panic, particularly public places, those with agoraphobia tend to face an enormous barrier to receiving medical care - often they are unable to travel to clinics or hospitals due to their condition. In a similar vein to helping other underserved patients, this is where various forms of technology can make a positive change, both in terms of connecting patients with physicians and therapists and helping individuals to manage symptoms, an article from The Week explained. Read on to learn more about the role of technology in the treatment of this complex mental illness.

A closer look at agoraphobia
According to the Mayo Clinic, agoraphobia is a nuanced mental illness, with various manifestations ranging from mild to severe. Those with agoraphobia typically experience some form of anxiety pertaining to being in certain situations or public places. For example, visiting the supermarket may inspire anxiety due to the amount of people, or riding on a bus may cause panic because it is enclosed and filled with passengers. The condition usually develops as patients become increasingly worried and nervous they will experience an adverse reaction while being in such places, namely panic attacks. As noted, the illness presents in varying ways, contingent on individuals. For example, some patients may experience agoraphobia but are still able to navigate situations and places that cause them distress, perhaps with the assistance of a friend or loved one. For others, agoraphobia becomes acute to the point that the need to avoid public places altogether develops, meaning that leaving home is no longer a possibility. 

It can be hard to distinguish agoraphobia from other anxiety disorders, however. Some of the most common symptoms that can point to the illness, the Mayo Clinic explained, include a fear of strangers, particularly large gatherings of individuals, a chronic fear of leaving home, concerns about taking public transportation and a phobia of open and/or closed spaces. The condition is relatively rare, with the National Institute of Mental Health reporting that around 0.8 percent of U.S. adults live with the condition.

How technology can help
As detailed by U.S. News & World Report, several forms of technology can help patients with agoraphobia who are no longer able to leave their homes. They include:

1. Telemedicine platforms
An article from U.S. News & World Report interviewed clinical psychologist and associate director of the UCLA Anxiety and Depression Research Center, Raphael Rose, who explained how telemedicine platforms, or telemental health, can be an effective way to reach patients who are unable to make in-person trips to see counselors, therapists or psychiatrists. Care is instead delivered virtually, typically over a video-conferencing platform. Much like telemedicine in general, this strategy has been shown to be effective in a number of ways. According to an article from the Telemental Health Guide, devised by researchers from the University of Denver, the benefits of telemental health include improved outcomes for patients, more cost-effective care and increased overall access to care. 

2. Virtual reality software
As detailed by an article from The Week, virtual reality software is one strategy that can be effective for helping individuals overcome their symptoms. Virtual reality programs typically come in the form of headsets, which place users in life-like simulations of everyday experiences - for example, walking in the park, driving a car or grocery shopping in a busy supermarket. The purpose is to gradually immerse agoraphobics in situations that would inspire anxiety in real life. According to the source, reporting on an Australian-based study, this kind of controlled exposure can be effective at helping those with agoraphobia manage their illness in a healthier way, particularly if it is conducted alongside more traditional forms of intervention, such as talk therapy.

3. Smartphone applications
Smartphone apps can now be used to help manage and in some cases treat, any number of physical and mental health conditions, from heart disease to depression, and anxiety disorders are no exception. For example, according to U.S. News & World Report, citing information from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, apps can be just as effective at delivering mental health guidance. Indeed, the ADAA recommended a number of smartphone apps that deal more generally with anxiety and depression, including Anxiety Reliever, MoodKit and Anxiety Coach by the Mayo Clinic. Furthermore, there is now a widely utilized app available targeted specifically to users experiencing agoraphobia, named Agoraphobia Free. According to the article from The Week, the app works by providing users with education and effective strategies for managing their fears. The article reported on a University College of London study which pointed to the efficacy of the platform - all 25 participants noted a significant improvement in symptoms.

Kevin McCarthy's picture

Kevin McCarthy

Industry News Editor

An avid traveler and news junkie, Kevin covers a range of topics from healthcare technology to policy and regulations. As a former journalism student, he enjoys finding stories relevant to small practices and is passionate about keeping them informed. Before joining NueMD, Kevin worked for Turner Broadcasting as a Programming Intern where he conducted legal research and contributed to editorial content development. He received his bachelor's degree in Communication from Kennesaw State University and currently serves as the Industry News Editor at NueMD.

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