NHS-recommended mental health apps need proper evaluation, research shows

  • Study finds digital mental health provision landscape isn’t well defined across England
  • The NHS could potentially be wasting money on e-therapies that haven’t been properly evaluated
  • Mental health apps need to be based on established guidelines and evidence

The NHS could potentially be wasting money on e-therapies that have not been properly evaluated, says a new study by the University of Sheffield.

The study, published in the BMJ, found that there is an urgent need for the e-therapies, which aim to tackle depression, anxiety and stress, to be properly evaluated to reduce wasted investment on potentially ineffective treatments.

Whilst e-therapies have the capacity to help the NHS reduce waiting-lists, be more cost effective and reduce pressures on mental health professionals, they are not consistently used or recommended across England, resulting in a ‘postcode lottery’ of service provision.

Many of the apps recommended are also only free in certain areas of England, requiring patients to pay in others. Researchers also found that only one out of 48 apps was aimed specifically at young people.

The research highlights that changes need to be made to establish clearer guidelines for digital mental health service provisions and build an evidence base with the purpose of evaluating their effectiveness.

It comes at a crucial time after the Prime Minister announced an expenditure of £67.7 million on digital mental health earlier this year.

Matthew Bennion, from the Department of Psychology, said: “Right now, NHS England has a huge opportunity to expand mental health care using apps, but to do this successfully it must ensure that common standards apply across its services.

“Some of this is easy: for example, providers should have a social media presence and keep their online information up-to-date. Other aspects take more time and effort, such as ensuring users' digital security and providing transparent reporting of outcomes. But these are the things that must be done if NHS England is to provide digital services that we can trust and be proud of.”

The research, funded by the University of Sheffield, was supervised by Dr Abigail Millings and Professor Gillian Hardy from the Department of Psychology and Professor Roger K. Moore from the Department of Computer Science. Matthew, Dr Abigail Millings and Professor Roger K. Moore are also from the Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Health Care (CATCH).

Additional Information

Paper: Bennion MR, Hardy G, Moore RK, et al. E-therapies in England for stress, anxiety or depression: what is being used in the NHS? A survey of mental health services. BMJ Open 2017;7:e014844. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2016-014844

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Maddy Wainwright
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University of Sheffield
0114 222 1047