- Xavier Palomer is the founder and CEO of Psious, a mental health startup based in Spain.
- Palomer thinks the number and severity of mental health cases are increasing, and VR is poised to close the gap for healthcare professionals.
- Because of his work, Insider named Palomer to our annual list of the 10 leaders transforming healthcare in Europe.
- Visit Insider’s Transforming Business homepage for more stories.
The last year has been busy for Xavier Palomer, the founder of Spanish virtual reality mental health startup Psious. The platform, which is a tool for mental health professionals to place their patients in a variety of different situations to try treatments such as exposure therapy or cognitive restructuring, doubled in the number of patients from 2019 to 2020. In all, 20,000 people have been treated using Psious’s platform.
And while the COVID-19 pandemic has strained many healthcare systems, it has shown the need for Psious’s tech and demonstrated the use case, too. Telehealth – where people are treated remotely from their medical professionals – has long been tomorrow’s technology. The promise has long been acknowledged, but the reality has always been that face-to-face meetings were preferred. The pandemic has challenged that notion.
“The adoption rate and interest from both healthcare professionals and patients is growing,” Palomer said. “If people are suffering, they want to use VR.” The normalization of technology in health treatment has been one beneficiary of the long stretches spent at home. “If you do something for a week, you’ll forget it,” Palomer said. “If you do it for a year or more, you get used to it. We’ve normalized this remote use.”
It’s not before time, either. While the pandemic has helped improve uptake of telehealth solutions, time spent away from loved ones, and away from physicians and psychiatrists is generating an enormous backlog of cases that Psious and Palomer hope to be able to help with.
“We’ve been locked down and isolated, with social distancing and a lot of things that make us anxious,” Palomer said. “We’re way more alone now. I used to go every day to the office; I can’t remember when I was last in the office. I don’t interact with my co-workers. When I interact with someone it’s often through a virtual connection. We don’t just talk anymore.”
Palomer thinks the increase in mental health issues is excacerbated by social distancing restrictions, increasingly negative news coverage, and general economic uncertainty for many people. “It’s like the worst mix ever,” Palomer said. “Being alone so you can’t exchange concerns or share problems. A lot of new stuff like face masks – inputs telling you something is wrong – and then bad news in everything you see or watch. It’s very easy to understand that at some point that will blow our minds.”
A mental health crisis on the horizon
Healthcare experts are already seeing the first wave of mental health issues starting to break on the horizon. “Most of us will be able to deal with it and get through it very easily, but a huge part of us won’t go through it very easily, which leads us to a growth in the number of mental health issues like anxiety and depression,” Palomer said. More than just sheer numbers, Palomer thinks physicians are also likely to see the severity of cases increase when the pandemic begins to subside. People will have lost family members; they’ll have spent a year or more locked indoors; they’ll have spent most of it worrying about what the future holds; and they may not have jobs to return to.
Palomer spoke to the head of psychiatry treatment at one of Spain’s largest hospitals. There, the department chief reported a 60% increase in caseload between January 2020 and January 2021. “For a hospital of that size, having that kind of growth in 12 months is just mindblowing,” Palomer said.
He’s concerned that we’re unsuited for what’s about to happen. “Are the systems ready, meaning healthcare providers, public and private systems? Are we ready to answer this demand?” he asks. “The answer is no. We’ll need to find, in the startup language, scalable solutions, and for me one of the best candidates is technology. Virtual reality has a very good clinical background and good validation. The scalability is there. We believe a solution like ours is needed more than ever before.”
Palomer believes Psious is a complement to, rather than a replacement for, face-to-face mental health treatment. But he thinks it’s better suited than most kinds of treatment, citing the way his back pain – the result of caring for three children and a life spent sitting at a computer – is being treated mostly through phone- and app-based physical therapy.
In 12 months’ time Palomer expects to see an even more meaningful increase in patient numbers being treated using Psious’s virtual reality systems. “We want to keep this pace in 2021,” he said. The mental health of us all may depend on it.