NHS seeks digital solution for “treatment gap” in mental health

NHS England has launched a programme to investigate how data sharing and digital health technologies (DHT) could close an “historic treatment gap in mental health provision.”

It has launched a tender process to find suppliers – both large and small – which can contribute to “multiple investigatory pieces of work” that will run over a four-month period, so as to gauge how data-sharing and DHTs could be folded into the care of people with mental health needs.

Up to £400,000 in funding is up for grabs to the successful applicant, with the programme scheduled to get underway in December.

The work ties in with the NHS Long-Term Plan (LTP), which includes a pledge to develop digitally enabled pathways of care and enable mental health providers to be connected with each other and other disciplines within the health service.

Last year, a report from think tank Future Care Capital urged the UK government to invest in the digitisation of service provision for mental health to help reverse a chronic lack of support for the sector that had resulted in convoluted access pathways, long waiting lists, and poor long-term outcomes.

Meanwhile, mental health problems are estimated to cost the UK economy at least £118 billion a year, according to research by the London School of Economics and Political Science, which makes a clear case for investing in preventive measures.

The new programme by NHS England and Improvement – run by a dedicated Digital Mental Health team – aims to understand how data currently flows between care settings, organisations, and geographies, as well as between healthcare professionals and patients.

Ultimately, the goal is identify ways to improve collection, sharing and use of this information, and identify “barriers and pain-points” that are blocking the process.

“The COVID pandemic rapidly increased the number of DHTs being used in mental health services,” says the notice for the tender, which has already received 27 complete or partial applications and closes on 14th October.

The aim now is to try to understand how DHTs can improve care delivery at the local level, and chart a path for these tools to be rolled out more broadly across the NHS.

“This understanding will inform the intention of local support for the adoption, scaling, and optimisation of DHTs that support our LTP ambitions around access, improved outcomes, care pathway improvement, and supporting the workforce.”

At the moment, digital tools are being deployed in a small, localised way by the NHS in the mental health arena, although there are signs of change.

For instance, Big Health’s digital cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) course Sleepio for insomnia was broadly adopted by NHS Scotland last year, and was recently also endorsed by NICE for use by NHS England.

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