The shift from traditional in-person activities to the digital space brought on by the pandemic has been challenging, but this change gave us a new perspective on how we do our work. Simply by moving online, we’ve been able to reduce barriers to access and reach more people than ever before. Change doesn’t come easily, but despite the challenges we’ve faced along the way, we are poised to steer the future of brain health into the digital space by investing our energy and resources in the right places.
OBI is committed to supporting activities that either generate the evidence to improve care or lead to the development of products and services that improve health outcomes. We’re striving to improve the lives of people with brain disorders and moving to digital or virtual approaches makes it easier to reach the 1 in 3 Ontarians in the comfort of their homes. Over the last year, we’ve supported major efforts to address mental health challenges, better the delivery and experience of virtual care, and create new tools that can be used at home.
The pandemic has taken a significant toll on mental health across every community, creating a pressing need to find virtual ways to support those impacted. Researchers at the POND Network – OBI’s neurodevelopmental disorders research program – have partnered with SickKids to glean insight into the pandemic’s impact on children and families and evaluate the effectiveness of virtual services to improve mental health. Preliminary findings released in December showed that 70% of children and youth surveyed reported worsened mental health during the lockdowns put into effect last spring. This kind of evidence will help researchers, policymakers and advocates to better address the community’s needs.
Another fine example comes from EpLink – OBI’s epilepsy research program who, working with the patient community and Ontario epilepsy agencies, recently launched UPLIFT, a cognitive behavioral therapy program based on mindfulness to support mental health for those living with epilepsy. This program includes eight sessions that can be done over the phone or online, with participants learning about epilepsy’s effect on mental health and teaching valuable coping mechanisms to help improve their mental wellbeing. The UPLIFT program is especially relevant as community needs and asks were at the forefront of developing this particular care option while capitalizing on the digital life we are living.
While the evaluation of virtual services is a new project, existing initiatives are turning out to be more needed than ever. Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) began some five years ago, designed to create virtual communities of healthcare providers and subject matter experts through videoconferencing technology. As the ECHO program was well established pre-pandemic, the program was able to offer free online sessions on dozens of topics related to brain health over this past year. These include the ECHO Ontario Autism program, ECHO Epilepsy (whose curriculum is informed by EpLink’s Clinical Guidelines for the Management of Epilepsy), and the ECHO Concussion program. The virtual training and support offered to clinicians through ECHO ultimately helps to ensure that patients can receive quality specialized care closer to home, across the province.
The many portfolio companies we support have also rose to the challenges brought on by the pandemic – turning this into an opportunity to develop new and improved products that help people better manage their brain health. There are multiple examples, such as LUCID’s VIBE, a digital music therapy application that has been proven to reduce anxiety; Resili’s evidence-based platform that provides psychoeducation and peer support for family and caregivers of people with depression, and Mobio Interactive’s award-winning app which offers performance enhancement and resilience training, made free throughout the pandemic for those in financial need.
It is evident we’re being pulled forward into a virtual era – ideally one with fewer barriers to access and improved outcomes for all Canadians, especially in brain health. While change is hard, it also comes with an opportunity to reallocate our resources into research that improves existing care or generates newer models that improve our overall wellness. From the research being done in the lab, to its application in the clinic, to the frontline work being done in our communities – much work needs to be done to support this transition from in-person to online – but we know, the future is promising.