The world is sitting on a mental health time bomb. Anxiety affects a billion people worldwide, and 300 million of them also suffer from depression, according to statistics from the World Economic Forum. The cost of mental health on the global economy could hit $16 trillion by 2030.

In Asia, it seems that health care systems are ill-equipped to deal with the ballooning demand for mental health treatment. In China alone, only about 40,000 certified counsellors provide mental health services. These are wholly inadequate numbers since the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated in 2017 that 54 million Chinese, or 4.2 per cent of the population, suffered from depression, China Briefing reports.

These sobering statistics underscore the urgent need for healthcare systems to act — and act fast. Technology can help fill the gap. Robotic surgeries, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled radiology, and remote patient monitoring are already transforming healthcare across the board. Could AI be part of the solution?

A rising trend in space is the digital human. Digital humans can solve two problems in one: address the lack of manpower in healthcare that is affecting countries all over the world and, at the same time, help hospitals to digitally enhance their service delivery.

A digital human can appear as an avatar on a kiosk, tablet or mobile phone. These incredibly realistic AI beings can hold complex conversations and react to facial expressions. These digital humans can essentially act as companions for patients, helping them from the minute they book their appointment and enter a hospital, all the way until the post-recovery period.

What’s more, as digital beings, they can be hooked up to the back-end systems, ready to pull up healthcare records, perform data analyses and collect important patient information.

If we take this concept even further, digital humans could represent the next level of patient experience — one that can be customised to every single patient. Interestingly enough, healthcare professionals in this region are reporting that patients would rather talk to digital humans than real ones.

Think about it. Digital humans can be part of a short-term solution for healthcare systems, as they train the next generation of mental health professionals. They can serve to make a bewildering and alienating visit to a crowded hospital a little more friendly. Some hospitals in Singapore are already trialling the use of digital humans for various functions.

Meanwhile, last year, a New Zealand mental health company Mentemia (Italian for ‘my mind’)  began developing digital humans specifically as mental health coaches and counsellors. According to its founder, digital mental coaches can be there for sufferers every day —  but if needed, a human would be just a phone call away. “My dream is that it will be like having a digital human with the brains of five or six world-class psychiatrists and psychologists,” founder John Kirwan was quoted by Newshub as saying.

These digital humans can also support mental health specialists in screening, diagnosing and measuring the severity of depression. Let’s take for instance the internationally recognised Patient Health Questionnaire or PHQ-9, a clinical tool for doctors to better understand their patients’ mental states. A digital human can be programmed to ask these questions on a doctor’s behalf and come up with its own diagnosis, speeding up the process.

This concept is already seeing the merit. UK-based RedArc Nurses announced in January 2019 that it is teaming up with a health tech provider to offer an app for personalised daily mental health support. Much like a digital human, the algorithms powering the app will use clinical tools such as PHQ-9 to tailor care and support for each patient, thereby helping the patients better manage their conditions.

There are many other possibilities besides the ones outlined here. But it is important to note that digital humans are not meant to be replacements for healthcare professionals, as nothing beats the human touch. Rather, their purpose is to make patients’ interactions smoother and easier, even if no actual human is present at the time to help.

It is clear that mental health patients need a little extra love and support when they are at their most vulnerable. Digital humans can provide reassurance and comfort, acting as conduits between patients and mental health professionals. This could make the biggest difference in stemming the tide of mental health problems before it overwhelms us.