Benson Kung recalls being an energetic, goal-directed teenager before stumbling into the quicksand of depression.
“I remember trying to wash some dishes one day, and I just couldn’t,” he wrote in an account of his journey. “It sounds ridiculous, but whenever I would try to wash the dishes, some compulsion would come over me, and before I knew it, the day ended, and the dishes were still dirty.”
He was lucky to find the right psychiatrist, diagnosis, and treatment. But reflecting on his own experience and that of others, he found the process of doing so can be demoralizing: “You have to overcome the stigma that prevents people, especially people of color, from seeking care. You have to find a clinic that can take new patients. You have to act as a middleman between your insurance and the clinic. You have to wait weeks and weeks to see a provider. And even when you start seeing a psychiatrist, it’s likely that you will end your treatment prematurely.”
That’s why he was eager to join a Stanford University classmate, Maurice Chiang, and start Prairie Health, a telehealth platform delivering personalized, data-driven mental health care.
Prairie Health’s MindVitals product allows physicians, insurers, employers, and other organizations to conduct technology-enabled behavioral health screenings and connect individuals to the appropriate resources. The company’s Prairie Ecosystem is a network of wellness, therapy, and psychiatric resources that can access technology and data to help individuals find the right treatment.
“Our goal at Prairie is to apply data to improve outcomes through improved access and efficacy of care,” Chiang, the company’s CEO, said.
Counting the Costs
Although Prairie Health will not start working with employers until early 2022, Chiang knows many companies are worried about the personal, professional, and financial costs associated with workers’ mental health problems.
Employees experiencing mental distress use nearly $3,000 more in health care services per year, on average, than their peers, according to research published by the National SafetyCouncil and NORC at the University of Chicago in May 2021.
Beyond that, presenteeism, absenteeism, and staff turnover pile on the costs that employers bear. The cost of workdays lost averages $4,783 per year per employee, according to the analysis. And the cost associated with turnover averages $5,733 per year per employee.
The toll on employees goes far beyond the financial costs. Workers who have experienced mental distress in the past year are more likely to report that they drove while under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs, the researchers found. Mentally distressed workers are 3.5 times more likely to have substance use disorders.
The NSC/NORC findings come from combining research on employment costs with data from the 2015 to 2019 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, a large government-sponsored survey. Thus, the report does not include the impact of COVID-19, which made the situation worse.
In a survey of 1,500 adults conducted in mid-2021, three-quarters of full-time U.S. workers reported experiencing at least one symptom of a mental health condition in the past year, up from 59% in 2019.
“In 2020, mental health support went from a nice-to-have to a true business imperative,” Kelly Greenwood, CEO of Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit that focuses on workplace mental health, and a colleague, wrote in Harvard Business Review.
Chiang and Kung both studied computer science at Stanford, where Chiang combined his interest in entrepreneurship with his concern about the mental health treatment landscape in America. “I’ve seen how the difficulty of accessing care and receiving ineffective care can impact people’s lives,” he said.
He and Kung, Prairie Health’s head of research and development, believe that individuals often suffer through misdiagnoses and ineffective treatment plans for two reasons: They have not connected with the most effective health care provider for their individual situation, or the health care professional does not have enough data about the individual to make an accurate diagnosis and create a successful treatment plan.
“So we teamed up and got started formally early last year,” Chiang said. “Since then, we have been building solutions for providers, health plans, and consumers to align incentives around improving the quality and access to care.”
The health care professionals who use Prairie Health’s platform have access to data, such as genetic-testing results and population-level insights, driven by artificial intelligence, which allow them to help individuals find the right treatment more quickly than the trial-and-error approach typical in mental health treatment.
“There’s an incredible demand for in-network, high-quality psychiatry and therapy today,” Chiang said. “And we can help both with identifying people who need help, which I think is a big challenge, and then we can follow up by getting those people in with a personalized care coordinator and our data-driven tools to in-network care for them.”