New Online Training Helps People Navigate Digital World, Improving Cognition and Functional Skills
The Brain Health and Fitness Program gives adults with mild cognitive and mental health issues new skills to perform “routine” tasks.
For people facing aging, cognitive decline, mental health issues or other concerns, living in a digital world can be an ongoing challenge. Tasks many people take for granted, like shopping online, ordering a food delivery, getting money from an ATM or buying a mass transit card, can stretch their technical skills.
To help people better manage technology, and to improve their cognitive function, the Miller School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences recently established the Brain Health and Fitness Program, which augments patient care with computerized cognitive and functional skills training.
“There are many people who have trouble learning new technologies, and we want to help them get a better handle on that,” said Philip Harvey, Ph.D., Leonard M. Miller Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, vice chair for research, chief of the Division of Psychology and director of the program. “That includes adults with serious mental illness, as well as older people who may have mild cognitive impairments, or even healthy adults who simply want to acquire new skills. Increasing cognitive performance makes it a lot easier to learn new skills, regardless of people’s current situation.”
Customized Functional Skills Assessment and Training
Designed to last three to six months, this fee-for-service program begins with a one-on-one consultation with Dr. Harvey. He assesses each patient’s condition, the psychiatric services they are receiving and the drugs they have been prescribed. In some cases, he may suggest a consult for a different medication or offer a new referral for psychiatric care and/or support services.
From there, a customized program is developed for the patient. The team helps patients access the program’s evidence-based software modules, which run on PCs, Macs, iPads — most large devices that run Google Chrome. Patients then self-administer the training at home, community centers or other preferred venues.
The cloud-based software, called Functional Skills Assessment and Training (FUNSAT), was designed by Dr. Harvey and Sara Czaja, Ph.D., professor of gerontology at Weill Cornell College of Medicine and professor emeritus at the Miller School. It teaches people how to perform important tasks, such as online shopping, operating ticketing kiosks and withdrawing money from an ATM. They can also learn medication organization and adherence, a crucial task for patients receiving integrated pharmacological augmentation and brain fitness training.
FUNSAT is simple to complete at home. Patients train for around two hours a week, for at least 15 minutes per session. The program staff monitors their progress online and sends encouraging messages, if necessary. Through the software, participants learn by doing.
“In our most recent studies, we’ve shown that when people improve in the training, they actually start doing these things in the real world,” said Dr. Harvey. “FUNSAT improves their ability to perform certain tasks, as well as boosting cognition particularly in concert with cognitive training. Not to mention, the practice training gives them confidence to go out and actually do these activities.”
Enhancing Skills in Everyday Technology
Though the Brain Health and Fitness Program is currently based in South Florida, the software’s cloud configuration could make it available to virtually anyone with a good connection. Still, Dr. Harvey and colleagues have worked with a number of facilities to implement FUNSAT, including the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, the New York State Office of Mental Health, the Manhattan Psychiatric Center and aging centers throughout the country. The online training helps patients tune their skills before going back into the world.
Though not covered by insurance, the program is rapidly gaining popularity, as it provides a unique opportunity to improve people’s quality of life.
“We have found that two-thirds of the people doing the training make tremendous progress,” said Dr. Harvey. “It helps them improve their skill levels and learn to use everyday technologies that had been giving them trouble. It’s a great way to enhance their well-being.”