An Emory nursing researcher’s new virtual health clinic could help young adults manage depression, according to a recent study published in Applied Nursing Research.

Melissa Pinto, the lead author of the study, presented her results to policy makers at the Technology Innovations for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Treatment conference hosted at the White House on Monday. Pinto and a team of researchers found that 18 to 25-year-olds who reported having depressive symptoms for more than two weeks showed fewer symptoms after using the computer program, the Electronic Self-Management Resource Training for Mental Health (eSMART-MH).

Users log into eSMART-MH and enter a three-dimensional health-clinic simulation where they can meet with virtual doctors and nurse practitioners to talk about how they are feeling.

“We were surprised by the findings [of the study] because of the reduction in depressive symptoms,” Pinto said. “Usually when you develop these kind of interventions, you don’t see an effect like that the first time around.”

Depression is a sensitive topic and can often be a difficult subject to bring up in a health care visit, Pinto said. She said she hopes eSMART-MH will give young adults the confidence to share their story and work with health care providers in a real clinic to develop a treatment plan that is right for them.

“I like to say it’s like a dress rehearsal, so you get to practice,” Pinto said. “And if you mess up, you’re in, what we believe, is a non-threatening environment. So then when you get to the real office, you feel really confident.”

But the effects may go beyond enhancing communication between a patient and a health care provider. In the study, participants who used the computer program once a month for three months showed on average one less depressive symptom at the end, Pinto said.

A control group who received education on healthy living, on the other hand, showed no significant reduction in symptoms.

Moving forward, Pinto said, she hopes to make the eSMART-MH “smarter” by adding features that allow the program to remember a user’s past responses. She said she would also like to expand her small study to include more participants.

While eSMART-MH or a modified technology may be available for Emory students in the future, Pinto is unsure of when that might be.

At the moment, there are other technologies available to help Emory students experiencing symptoms of depression, including an online questionnaire developed by the Emory Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) that allows students to make an initial contact with a health care professional.

“The feedback that we’ve gotten from some students is that if there wasn’t this anonymous safe way to talk to somebody first to get more comfortable, I don’t know that I would have ever walked into the Counseling Center’s doors,” said Mahlet Endale, licensed psychologist at CAPS.

But using technology like the Emory Cares 4 U program is not the endpoint, said Endale. Both Pinto and Endale agree that treatment for depression still requires face-to-face contact with a health care professional.

The eSMART-MH program is just an adjunct to face-to-face health care that helps young adults manage their depressive symptoms, Pinto said.

– By Nisha Giridharan