Text reminders help connect health care workers to care and improve their mental health

Nationwide, health care workers are facing strains to mental health, but Penn Medicine’s regular reminders about its mental health platform lead to significant improvements of symptoms.

Health care workers have reported spikes in feeling burnt out in the time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with nearly half saying it took a toll in 2022 compared to 32 percent in 2018. But a new study shows that easy-to-use and accessible platforms may help reverse this trend. Regular, automated text message reminders connecting staff to a mental health platform called “Cobalt” drove significant improvements in both depression and anxiety scores among employees, according to a new JAMA Network Open study from the Perelman School of Medicine.

Person looking at a smartphone.
Image: iStock/Chainarong Prasertthai

“What we found shows that touching base with people, letting them know that help is available and easy to access, goes a long way toward maximizing digital mental health interventions and platforms, which leads to important, tangible results,” says the study’s lead author, Anish Agarwal, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and deputy director of the Center for Insights to Outcomes. “Mental health platforms continue to grow and evolve, but to this point, there hasn’t been enough research about them and how to optimize their use, particularly among health care workers. Work like ours is important as health systems across the country seek to better assist their staff with the challenges they face.”

Available as an open-source, web-based platform for any health system, COBALT is designed specifically to support health care employees seeking mental health help. It includes resources such as podcasts, articles, and worksheets, pathways to schedule one-on-one sessions with therapists, doctors, and resiliency coaches, and also features group sessions focused on specific issues, such as mindfulness or anti-racism. The platform also includes access to urgent intervention for those in need of emergency attention.

The study shows that users’ self-reported depression symptom scores improved by roughly 11% six months after employees engaged with COBALT. This was measured by the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9), in which answers to a survey result in a score used to help assess potential levels of depression. Participating employees included doctors, nurses, technicians, and registrars.

“This study is one of very few evidenced-based approaches which have been shown to improve the mental health of health care workers after the pandemic,” says the study’s senior author, Raina Merchant, the University of Pennsylvania Health System chief transformation officer and a professor of emergency medicine. “Our work shows that health systems have the unique opportunity to provide substantial support for this critical workforce.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.