As medical bills rise, mental health decreases: can AI fill the gap?

Updated on April 20, 2024

External stressors – from work to family life – can cause real physical and mental health issues – but what happens when one of the stressors on our health is the financial burden of health itself? A new study reveals higher medical debt results in worse physical and mental health in the United States. This is a vicious cycle to contend with in our current healthcare environment where mental health issues are on the rise and uncertainty over healthcare programs looms large during an election year. 

Approximately 6% of US adults owe more than $1,000 in medical debt. Faced with a difficult decision between paying for health care and other monthly expenses, more people are experiencing health issues as a result. Amid this uncertainty, AI can potentially lower the financial burden of healthcare and reduce harmful effects on the body and mind caused by stress. 

The Toll of Financial Stress

A recent poll shows healthcare tops the list of basic expenses Americans worry about with nearly 3 in 4 adults expressing concern over unexpected medical bills and other health costs. The same survey revealed 48% of voters identified healthcare costs as a major reason for their negative views of the economy.

Americans are hyper-aware this election could change long-established healthcare programs and have a lasting impact on ongoing issues – from the Affordable Care Act to Medicaid and Medicare expansion, drug costs, reproductive rights, and other affordability issues. 

Stress about availability and cost can manifest as mental health issues in the form of anxiety, depression and other behavioral changes that can impact someone’s well-being, relationships or work performance. These feelings can also take the form of physical symptoms, including increased back pain, migraines and high blood pressure. More seriously, premature death and mortality have been linked to higher levels of medical debt.  

Our society has made strides in normalizing conversations about mental health but deeply rooted stigma still exists, especially among older people who are more likely to accumulate medical bills at higher rates. This, combined with the taboo of speaking up about financial woes, further perpetuates the cycle of poor health. 

Where can AI step in?

AI tools can be a resource for people who are trying to navigate the complexities of health insurance and federal policies causing them stress. A simple conversation with well-known chatbots can provide clarity on specific technicalities of a health plan or how to sign up, but more robust solutions are also available. Companies like Predict Health use AI to help Medicare consumers get the most out of their coverage experience, while also helping insurers provide higher value. People are also leveraging AI to help with financial planning, using automated tools to generate budgeting plans and make healthcare expenses feel more manageable. 

In addition to plan and finance management, AI can provide therapeutic services to help people manage stress – financial or otherwise – and address mental health concerns without adding to expenses. Traditional therapy costs on average $100-$200 per session depending on the state. In between sessions or while waiting to see a professional (the average wait time to get an appointment with a mental health specialist is currently around six weeks) AI is there. Not only is it available anytime but it has the benefit of anonymity. While it won’t replace therapy anytime soon, it can provide tools to build emotional resilience and overcome the stress of medical bills. 

AI-led therapy also supports the behavioral health community which has been outpaced by demand, leading to a shortage of behavioral health providers. Therapists and medical professionals use AI to analyze client sessions, support patients while they’re on the waitlist, and supplement treatment between sessions or during off-hours to speed up results. 

As stress mounts over medical expenses and potential changes in healthcare policy, Americans embracing AI for behavioral health can lead to much-needed relief. As an unpaid collaborator in someone’s team of providers, AI is the only solution that doesn’t add to the cost, and the stress, of getting well. 

chaitali sinha
Chaitali Sinha
SVP of Healthcare and Clinical Development at Wysa
Chaitali Sinha is SVP of healthcare and clinical development at Wysa.