It Takes a Village Interview: Dr. Murray Zucker, Chief Medical Officer of Happify Health
Bringing AI to Wellness, Behavioral Health, and Medical Care Delivery
By Kevin Pereau
The future of technology possibilities in healthcare can be as unlimited as our imagination. Tech innovation has already started ushering in positive, significant changes. For instance, we just witnessed the rapid adoption of telemedicine during the pandemic. And given the mental health crisis that pre-existed the pandemic and has become much worse since, imagine a world where behavioral health treatment, enhanced by AI, can reach more people in an efficient and effective manner with data to prove progress. Well – the future is here and about to get even better.
Here’s something to consider – what if the treatment you’re receiving on your smartphone, laptop, or computer is not with a human, but driven by proven digitized therapeutic programs with AI to personalize your experience and improve outcomes and engagement?
Think of the rapid advances that once seemed impossible a short while ago and are now taken for granted by us – Siri and Alexa answering our questions, finding things, and adjusting our home environment. In addition to present AI enhancement, combining soon to be embedded voice recognition, natural language processing, data from wearables, and integrated data from smartphones which are proxies of physiologic markers of one’s mental and physical status will allow much more accurate and individualized treatment which can be an adjunct to usual treatment or may be available for the overwhelming number of people who don’t access treatment.
One company leading this field is Happify Health (HappifyHealth.com) which is delivering an expanding range of care. Happify is a global software-enabled healthcare platform company improving behavioral health, physical health, and wellbeing and offering digital therapeutics, prescribed digital therapeutics (it’s Ensemble product soon to be released as a pilot), therapeutics with pharma partners, social media platforms for specific disease related communities, and a platform for integrating benefits and modernizing patient navigation and experience for health plans and employers.
According to Dr. Zucker, Happify’s chief medical officer, Happify is already able to deliver the following AI enabled functions:
- Treatment using an AI assisted coach, called ‘Anna,’ which can determine and adjust to the emotions, moods, and needs of the user (patented technology) and can store responses and data to continually improve the understanding of the user (of course cybersecure and HIPPA compliant). So if someone is angry or stressed out, the program picks that up and alters the course to help the person immediately deal with the situation.
- Treatment is in 10 languages and culturally sensitive – so it’s not just a translation. This allows for Happify to be used in many countries, by over 20 million covered lives, many Fortune 500 companies, and some of the biggest health plans in the U.S.
- The treatments embedded in the app are science-based, validated, and proven effective in the digital format and based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness, Positive Psychology, and other disciplines. And the engagement rates are the best in the field and are long-lasting.
- As Happify succeeds, it enables greater access to care, more effective and efficient care, more consistent care, and data to prove it and give feedback to the user, employer, health plan, or pharma customer.
How has Happify put all this together? I recently sat down for a chat with Dr. Murray Zucker to find out more. As a psychiatrist with a background in academia, large group practice, and health plan clinical leadership, he brings expertise in medical behavioral integration, patient engagement and adherence, health behavior change and new technologies in diagnosis and treatment. Previously, he was Sr. Medical director at Optum Behavioral Health for New Product and Innovation, and prior Sr. Medical Director of Optum Behavioral Health for the West, and prior to that Medical Director of Tricare for HealthNet for the West. He graduated University of Pennsylvania, went on to the medical school at University of Rochester, spent two years running a medical clinic on a southwest Indian Reservation, and did his psychiatric residency at UCLA where he remained on faculty.
As a media spokesman for mental health, you may have seen him on The Today Show, Good Morning America, 20/20, CNN, and the LA Evening News as well as heard him on the radio or appearing in major newspapers.
How Does Happify Health “Help People, One Person at a Time”?
Happify is having a big impact and lives up to its tag line – “helping people, one person at a time.” Murray explains: “We take proven, science-based therapeutics, digitize them, wrap them in an engaging interface, and get impressive improvement in stress, anxiety, depression, and resilience as measured by our outcome studies. In this field, you can’t afford to take short cuts, and at Happify, we have an entire division dedicated to outcome studies, Randomized Controlled Trials (RTC’s), and Health, Outcomes, Economic Research (HOER).” The AI engine in the background learns more and more about the user and personalizes the program while data is analyzed to inform as to progress and trends.
The founders of Happify, Ofer Leidner and Tomer ben-Kiki, were previously successful in the gaming industry, and afterwards they decided to take the lessons learned about gamification, engagement and adherence and bring them to improve healthcare. And the result is far superior engagement and lasting continuation with the platform because the apps are enjoyable, interesting, compelling, and useful.
Presently, many of Happify’s products have over 3,000 activities and games to choose from, over 65 tracks or mini-programs, and 300 guided meditations as well as daily infographics, and individualized recommendations. Users note their thoughts, monitor activity, join group support, share experiences, and watch their progress.
Help When People Need It
One immediate benefit of digital therapy is that it’s available to users 24/7 – at their time, at their need, at their location. “It isn’t like going to a therapist’s office once a week and having no idea of the consistency or proficiency of that therapist,” Murray says. “Everybody is getting a different version of CBT that way. But with our digital therapeutic you’re getting a validated, consistent, and measurable product and you can actually look at outcomes.”
Important Applications of Data
Murray goes on to say: “When a health plan or employer provides Happify Health to its members or employees, the individual gets feedback, the therapist gets feedback, and the health plans and employers get population-based feedback that show both improvement and value.
We’re fortunate that with digital therapeutics we can reach more people, anywhere, at scale that is affordable, effective, and efficient. And by addressing the stress, anxiety, and depression frequently accompanying many chronic medical illnesses, we can improve quality of life, physical health, and lower healthcare costs.”
Where Happify Health Is Going
As the covid-19 pandemic winds down, studies and surveys show there has been a massive increase in mental health problems – burnout, anxiety, depression, substance use, eating disorders, child, spouse, and elder abuse, PTSD and worsening for those with chronic mental illness. That’s not to mention whatever long lasting mental effects having had the virus may show. Murray adds: “When you look at certain populations – the elderly, teens – the numbers are startling. One survey showed a 25% increase in teen suicidality – a 5-time increase! The elderly are vulnerable because of loneliness and isolation and perhaps lack of resources. Other vulnerable populations have showed higher than expected rates of infection and mortality. Hopefully, the ever-increasing power of AI and the digital experience can help address these issues as well.”
According to Zucker, “we have two pandemics – the Covid pandemic and the mental health pandemic. The current manpower in the mental health field is just not capable of handling the need. This is another case for the digital approach to mental and physical health.”
Murray points out “severe depression, for example, will affect people physiologically for years to come. So, for example if you look at two diabetic patients- one with co-existing depression (about 50% have this). Guess what? The depressed diabetic needs more insulin, has more hospitalizations for medical problems, more foot infections and other complications. if you can reduce the anxiety and/or depression in the chronically medically ill, you really improve quality of life and decrease medical expenditure. Digital therapeutics makes this more likely.”
I think that anyone who perceived technology as remote, distant, and non-caring would do well to think about the views that Dr. Zucker shared with me and you. When the people behind the technology are not only scientists and clinicians but also dedicated to doing good and helping people, that technology becomes a powerful vehicle for improving healthcare and the “health of one person at a time.”
About Murray Zucker
Murray Zucker, MD, is The Medical Director at Happify Health (www.happifyhealth.com). As a psychiatrist with a background in academia, large group practice, and health plan clinical executive leadership, he brings expertise in medical behavioral integration, patient engagement and adherence, health behavior change, and new technologies in diagnosis and treatment. Prior to Happify, he was Senior Medical Director of New Product and Innovation for Optum, where he spearheaded the formation of a telebehavioral service and was part of the team bringing innovation to this sector. Previously he served as Optum’s Western Regional Medical Director and Medical Director for Tricare – Western Region with Health Net, where he gained experience with large government contracts and coordinated with the VA and DoD. Murray received his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, his M.D. from the University of Rochester, and completed his psychiatric residency at UCLA.
If his name seems familiar to you, that’s probably because Murray has appeared on the Today Show, Good Morning America, 20/20, CNN, and LA Evening News. Has also been featured on the radio discussing behavioral issues, and in prominent newspapers and magazines that have included the Wall Street Journal, LA Times, and People Magazine.
Follow Dr. Zucker on LinkedIn.
You can read the full interview with Dr. Zucker in Kevin’s book, It Takes a Village – Click here to get it on Amazon.