Five years from now, the U.S.’ already overburdened mental health system may be short as many as 15,600 psychiatrists as the growth in demand for their services outpaces supply, according to a 2017 report from the National Council for Behavioral Health. But some proponents say that, by then, an unlikely tool—artificial intelligence—may be ready to help mental health practitioners mitigate the impact of the deficit.
Medicine is already a fruitful area for artificial intelligence; it has shown promise in diagnosing disease, interpreting images and zeroing in on treatment plans. Though psychiatry is in many ways a uniquely human field, requiring emotional intelligence and perception that computers can’t simulate, even here, experts say, AI could have an impact. The field, they argue, could benefit from artificial intelligence’s ability to analyze data and pick up on patterns and warning signs so subtle humans might never notice them.
“Clinicians actually get very little time to interact with patients,” says Peter Foltz, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who this month published a paper about AI’s promise in psychiatry. “Patients tend to be remote, it’s very hard to get appointments and oftentimes they may be seen by a clinician [only] once every three months or six months.”
AI could be an effective way for clinicians to both make the best of the time they do have with patients, and bridge any gaps in access, Foltz says. AI-aided data analysis could help clinicians make diagnoses more quickly and accurately, getting patients on the right course of treatment faster—but perhaps more excitingly, Foltz says, apps or other programs that incorporate AI could allow clinicians to monitor their patients remotely, alerting them to issues or changes that arise between appointments and helping them incorporate that knowledge into treatment plans. That information could be lifesaving, since research has shown that regularly checking in with patients who are suicidal or in mental distress can keep them safe.
Some mental-health apps and programs already incorporate AI—like Woebot, an app-based mood tracker and chatbot that combines AI and principles from cognitive behavioral therapy—but it’ll probably be some five to 10 years before algorithms are routinely used in clinics, according to psychiatrists interviewed by TIME. Even then, Dr. John Torous, director of digital psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, cautions that “artificial intelligence is only as strong as the data it’s trained on,” and, he says, mental health diagnostics have not been quantified well enough to program an algorithm. It’s possible that will happen in the future, with more and larger psychological studies, but, Torous says “it’s going to be an uphill challenge.”