Phone-based interventions in adolescent psychiatry: A perspective and proof of concept pilot study with a focus on depression and autism

Robert Yuzen Chen, Jordan Robert Feltes, William Shun Tzeng, Zoe Yunzhu Lu, Michael Pan, Nan Zhao, Rebecca Talkin, Kavon Javaherian, Anne Glowinski, Will Ross

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Background: Telemedicine has emerged as an innovative platform to diagnose and treat psychiatric disorders in a cost-effective fashion. Previous studies have laid the functional framework for monitoring and treating child psychiatric disorders electronically using videoconferencing, mobile phones (smartphones), and Web-based apps. However, phone call and text message (short message service, SMS) interventions in adolescent psychiatry are less studied than other electronic platforms. Further investigations on the development of these interventions are needed. Objective: The aim of this paper was to explore the utility of text message interventions in adolescent psychiatry and describe a user feedback-driven iterative design process for text message systems. Methods: We developed automated text message interventions using a platform for both depression (EpxDepression) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD; EpxAutism) and conducted 2 pilot studies for each intervention (N=3 and N=6, respectively). The interventions were prescribed by and accessible to the patients' healthcare providers. EpxDepression and EpxAutism utilized an automated system to triage patients into 1 of 3 risk categories based on their text responses and alerted providers directly via phone and an online interface when patients met provider-specified risk criteria. Rapid text-based feedback from participants and interviews with providers allowed for quick iterative cycles to improve interventions. Results: Patients using EpxDepression had high weekly response rates (100% over 2 to 4 months), but exhibited message fatigue with daily prompts with mean (SD) overall response rates of 66.3% (21.6%) and 64.7% (8.2%) for mood and sleep questionnaires, respectively. In contrast, parents using EpxAutism displayed both high weekly and overall response rates (100% and 85%, respectively, over 1 to 4 months) that did not decay significantly with time. Monthly participant feedback surveys for EpxDepression (7 surveys) and EpxAutism (18 surveys) preliminarily indicated that for both interventions, daily messages constituted the “perfect amount” of contact and that EpxAutism, but not EpxDepression, improved patient communication with providers. Notably, EpxDepression detected thoughts of self-harm in patients before their case managers or caregivers were aware of such ideation. Conclusions: Text-message interventions in adolescent psychiatry can provide a cost-effective and engaging method to track symptoms, behavior, and ideation over time. Following the collection of pilot data and feedback from providers and patients, larger studies are already underway to validate the clinical utility of EpxDepression and EpxAutism.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere114
JournalJMIR Research Protocols
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2017


  • Autistic disorder
  • Child
  • Depression
  • Mental health
  • Mobile applications
  • Telemedicine
  • Text messaging


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