EMBED project using digital tools to assist depression diagnosis and care

Members of the EMBED team chatting informally in Shanghai.

Pictured, left to right: Dr. Jun Chen, Dr. Erin Michalak, Dr. Jill Murphy, and Dr. Raymond Lam enjoy a conversation after a meeting in Shanghai, China.

Can technology help solve the global burden of mental illness? A five-year project, jointly funded by Canadian Institutes for Health Research and National Natural Science Foundation of China, has brought international researchers, led in Canada by Dr. Raymond Lam, together to study the effectiveness of digital technologies for depression in community mental health centres across Shanghai, China.

Their premier project is called “Enhanced Measurement-Based care Effectiveness for Depression” (EMBED). Over the past year, the Canadian team has been working closely with colleagues in Shanghai to pool their knowledge, expand their data sets, and to study the opportunities and benefits of using innovative digital technologies such as smartphone applications, internet tools, and online health records to enhance measurement-based care (MBC) for depression.

MBC is an evidence-based practice that can improve depression diagnosis and treatment, and technology-enabled MBC (called “enhanced” or eMBC) tools developed through the program may serve as models for future development and scale up in the region.

“Canadian expertise is driving this,” said Dr. Lam. “Using technology to supplement ongoing care, access to clinicians and making internet tools available 24/7 for patients means better health care outcomes for all.”

EMBED is one of the first major initiatives for the APEC Digital Hub for Mental Health, hosted in Canada at the Mood Disorders Centre in the Department of Psychiatry at UBC, in collaboration with the University of Alberta and the Mood Disorders Society of Canada. The Digital Hub is a collaborative, multi-national web-based platform that is enabling leaders in government, academia, business, clinical care, and communities of people with lived experience to innovate and coordinate regional solutions to mental health care challenges in the Asia Pacific. Since the inception of the Digital Hub in 2016, the executive team has made impressive progress in forging global relationships and developing projects with opportunities for significant real-world impacts.

“Given the size of our respective countries and variability in access to mental health resources in both China and Canada, we’re looking for ways to provide mental health support to people who need it in regions where there are fewer health care professionals,” said Dr. Erin Michalak, Program Director of the Digital Hub and EMBED co-investigator.

In China, the team is led by Dr. Jun Chen, Chief Psychiatrist at the Shanghai Mental Health Centre with collaboration and support from co-investigators affiliated with the Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine and in mental health centres in rural and urban areas. Improving depression diagnosis and increasing treatment has been a national priority for China since adoption of the National Mental Health Work Plan 2015-2020.

Following two successful investigator meetings in Shanghai this spring and summer, Dr. Erin Michalak is preparing to return this fall with postdoctoral fellow Dr. Jill Murphy to continue Phase One of the project, which includes data collection, analysis and training with the Chinese team.

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