Mental Health Apps and the NHS
What should you do if you’ve developed a new app, which could benefit NHS patients?
If you try to go directly to the NHS, you’re going to come up against a culture which insists on an ‘evidence-base’, demanding proof that the app is effective. And because the NHS is constantly suffering financial cuts, you will have to convince them that it wouldn’t cost very much money. You will also have to convince their overstretched IT departments that they have the time and resources to implement your new technology, instead of focusing on the basics, such as safe information sharing.
The ‘evidence-base’ requirement is almost impossible for app developers to overcome at present, because the NHS doesn’t know what it’s looking for. The NHS shut down its own app approval website at the end of 2015, pending agreement of an appropriate system for validation. It’s going to be hard for them to agree on how to validate apps quickly enough, before technology moves on, and the validated app is already out-of-date.
So, should the NHS have a lower threshold for implementation of apps? Should it just make sure that the app is ‘safe’? Apps are everywhere, so if there’s minimal chance of direct harm, why not just ‘give it a try’? Even if the app doesn’t actually work, it might provide a tech-loving individual with the motivation to seek evidence-based help. The potential for anonymity might also reassure those who are fearful of the consequences of seeing a mental health professional face-to-face.
But there is danger in the NHS endorsing ‘harmless’ apps, and allowing a star-rating of popularity to guide potential patients. Just because an app is easy to use, doesn’t mean it’s useful. If an individual wants to waste their money in an app store, that’s their choice, but the NHS needs to ensure that its limited resources are appropriately spent on interventions that actually help.
The NHS can’t afford to sink its money into apps that rely on the same justifications as homoeopathy. This argument echoes the current demand for a 24-hour NHS: If you are ill, you don’t want your initial attempts to get help to result in substandard, ineffective treatment. You risk never receiving effective care at all.