Can an app improve NHS mental health support?


Person holding a phone

UK researchers have secured government funding to study the use of AI for providing mental health support in the NHS.

Over a million people are referred to UK mental health services each year, but may have to wait 12 weeks or more to receive treatment or support. The Wysa app uses an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot and a series of self-care exercises to help people manage their mental health using clinically-reviewed cognitive-behavioural techniques.

A new research project will examine the clinical efficacy of the WYSA app on patients’ symptoms of anxiety and depression during the referral process for standard UK mental health services.

Backed by funding through the NIHR/NHSX AI for Health and Care award, the project will investigate whether a digital health app, Wysa, can support people during this waiting period to manage their mental health.

Dr Céire Costelloe, Director of the Global Digital health Unit and Imperial lead for the project said: "Timely support provision and early identification of deteriorating mental health could enable earlier interventions for those who need it and improve health service efficiency.

"The aims of this project support the NHS Long Term Plan’s efforts to promote digitally-enabled care, improve access to mental health support, and reduce wait times, but providing evidence of clinical effectiveness is crucial to enable rapid adoption of digital tools into the NHS. We are very excited to be able to work with colleagues to assess the clinical efficacy of the WYSA AI tool in mental healthcare pathways in a real-world healthcare setting."

Randomised controlled trial

The partnership, which includes Imperial College London, Central and Northwest London NHS Foundation Trust, and the University of Plymouth will conduct a randomised controlled trial, whereby randomly selected participants on mental health waiting lists will be given access to Wysa at the point of referral and encouraged to explore the self-support tools. Participants will be able to monitor their levels of anxiety and depression through the app. Their results will be compared with a control group of people who are on the waiting list but not using Wysa.

Service users’ outcome measures scores will be saved directly into their electronic patient record to make triaging and escalating with the mental health service more effective and supportive.

Artificial Intelligence in Health and Care Award

The funding of this project is one of a number announced by the Department of Health and Social Care, NHSX and the National Institute for Health Research. The Artificial Intelligence in Health and Care Award is making £140 million available over four years to accelerate the testing and evaluation of artificial intelligence technologies which meet the aims set out in the NHS Long Term Plan. The Award is part of the £250 million funding given by the Department for Health and Social Care to NHSX to establish an AI Lab aimed at improving the health and lives of patients.

The full list of AI in Health and Care Award winners is available on the NHSX website.


Jack Stewart

Jack Stewart
School of Public Health

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