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Caring for caregivers: UNC’s Heroes Health Initiative supports healthcare workers’ mental health

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The COVID-19 pandemic has put a huge strain on the U.S. healthcare system and its people. First responders and healthcare workers on the frontlines face incredible challenges, both physical and mental. Healthcare workers were vulnerable to depression and suicide before COVID-19. Now the problem is more acute, with first responders and frontline healthcare workers reporting alarming rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and distress. 

To help these workers cope with the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact they have on their mental health, researchers and clinicians at the University of North Carolina created the Heroes Health Initiative in partnership with Google Cloud and volunteers from across Alphabet. The Heroes Health app is available free of charge through Google Play and Apple’s App Store to any healthcare worker in the United States, with additional features for healthcare institutions that want to deploy it across their organizations.  

For individual healthcare workers, the Heroes Health app delivers short mental health self-assessments each week, and displays symptom summary reports to help them better understand the state of their own mental health—and changes over time. The app also provides links to immediate support and mental health resources, emphasizing free and low-cost services.

Many workers don’t show outward signs of the stress they’re facing, which can make it difficult for organizations to identify who needs extra support. For healthcare organizations, Heroes Health provides a way to identify and proactively reach out to workers who might need help (with the worker’s explicit permission). Aggregate reports by unit, profession, or department can help an organization understand if a particular group is facing outsized stress.  

The Heroes Health Initiative is spearheaded by UNC School of Medicine physician Dr. Samuel McLean, Research Vice-Chair in the Department of Anesthesiology and an attending physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine. As a practicing emergency physician and COVID-19 survivor who contracted the virus and infected two of his family members, Dr. McLean witnessed and experienced firsthand the stress that frontline healthcare workers are under. 

Dr. McLean needed a technology partner to help bring his initiative to life. Volunteers from across Google Cloud and Alphabet, including our “moonshot factory” X, worked in close collaboration with UNC on the project—everyone from engineers and scientists to product and program managers helped out. Google Cloud is providing free credits from our academic research credits program to host the Heroes Health app, which is built on the FDA MyStudies on Google Cloud solution. UNC chose this solution for Heroes Health because it gives them the ability to connect directly with healthcare workers quickly and compliantly. Google Cloud’s HIPAA-compliance-supporting platform and enterprise-level security features ensure that healthcare customers like the Heroes Health Initiative maintain complete control over their data. 

The Heroes Health app is now available to all individual healthcare workers and first responders nationwide. The initiative is being piloted at UNC Health and will soon roll out to first responder and healthcare organizations across the United States. Some of the first organizations that will deploy Heroes Health include UNC, Cooper University Healthcare, Rhode Island Hospital, Brown University, Indiana University Health, and Jefferson Health. Organizations can learn more about joining the Heroes Health Initiative here.

The mental health of first responders and healthcare workers is critically important, especially as they face increased stress related to COVID-19. We are proud to support these frontline workers through the Heroes Health app. 

Visit UNC’s website to learn more about the Heroes Health Initiative. Get in touch to see how your organization can build and launch similar initiatives with FDA MyStudies on Google Cloud.