UNC School of Medicine and UNC Health on Tuesday launched a mobile app that’s designed to provide healthcare workers with mental health resources amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Heroes Health app, a part of UNC School of Medicine’s Heroes Health Initiative and developed with volunteers from Google, is meant to help healthcare workers better understand their own mental health, said Dr. Samuel McLean, an emergency medicine physician at the medical school who founded the initiative.
There’s also an option for healthcare organizations to offer a customized version of app to their employees, which also provides leaders at the organization with aggregate trends data.
UNC School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, N.C., has been working on the app—with support from researchers at other universities and health systems, as well as software engineers from Google—since March.
McLean said his experience working in a COVID-19 unit spurred his interest in creating the app.
“If I saw a nurse crying or really struggling, for example, there was a sense that the healthcare organization really didn’t have any way to know that,” said McLean, whose previous research has involved developing app-based mental health assessments for trauma survivors. Health system leaders didn’t have a “way to know how workers in different areas were doing.”
McLean said COVID-19 has been “distinctly challenging” for the healthcare world, and different than anything he experienced in his two decade career in emergency departments.
McLean has first-hand experience with COVID-19 as a care provider and patient. He said he contracted COVID-19 in March, and so were his wife and son.
The family’s dog, Winston, went viral as the first known U.S. dog to test positive for COVID-19.
“He’s the famous one,” McLean joked.
The app prompts first responders and healthcare workers to complete weekly questionnaires on symptoms related to various mental health conditions, which fuel summary reports of the user’s symptoms and trends over time. That includes an assessment of their sleep quality and anxiety, post-traumatic stress and depression symptoms.
The app also presents mental health resources that are free or have discounts for healthcare workers.
The app is free to download for healthcare workers and organizations, funded by donors including mental health not-for-profit One Mind, the Rockefeller Foundation and Bank of America. Individual contributors have also funded the Heroes Health app through a GoFundMe fundraising page.
Healthcare organizations that partner with the Heroes Health Initiative for a customized app receive weekly reports with anonymous, aggregated data on symptoms reported by their employees. The reports are meant to help pinpoint times of day or particular units that might need additional support, without identifying individual employees.
Workers have the option to share their individual summary reports with a designated mental health worker at their organization.
Some health systems have already expressed interest in offering the app to their employees.
“We’re launching at UNC, and then we have a number of other healthcare organizations that have expressed a lot of interest,” McLean said, citing Boston Medical Center and Cooper University Health Care and Jefferson Health as a few examples. “We’re in the process of setting up the app at those systems.”
UNC developed the app’s mental health assessment with collaborators from Harvard University, Brown University and Cooper University Health Care. McLean also reached out to a leader at X, a Google sister company focused on research and development for so-called “moonshot” projects, who he’d worked with on other research.
Obi Felten, whose title at X is “head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world,” got together a group of volunteers from Google and X to build the app on Google Cloud.
“Our volunteers were honored to be able to support such a worthwhile and important initiative,” Felten said in a statement. “Heroes Health is the first initiative to focus on the mental health of COVID-19 healthcare workers, who are under extreme pressure in this pandemic.”
Google’s team doesn’t have access to data submitted to the app, McLean said.