How the NHS is using digital technology to support people’s mental health

Simon Dixon, Deputy Director of Digital Transformation NHSX, and Rob Banathy, Digital Mental Health Workstream Lead, set out the work being led by NHSX Vulnerable, Isolated and Social Care (VISC) Cell, to identify how digital technology can support children, young people and adults with mental health needs.

Earlier this week, Iain O’Neil, Digital Transformation Director, spoke about how from the outset, NHSX has been leading the Vulnerable, Isolated and Social Care (VISC) Cell, set up to identify and deliver digital solutions to help our most vulnerable or potentially vulnerable citizens during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sitting within this ‘cell’ is a team of staff from across NHSX, NHS England and NHS Improvement, DHSC and NHS Digital, with a firm focus on how digital technology can be used to support the mental health needs of vulnerable groups of citizens over the coming months.  

Our five-step approach to identifying and unlocking viable solutions 

Our work is user-led and informed by intelligence gathered from local services and Academic Health Science Networks. We have identified several at risk groups where we believe digital products and services could meet the needs of users and provide support for those users and the services that are supporting them. We have a five-step approach to determine which products and services we, as a team, believe will have a significant impact on the needs of our users.

1. Identify the needs of a specific user group to create the digital product requirements. Our user-centred research approach enables us to rapidly identify and understand people’s needs that a digital product or service could meet. 

2. Suppliers confirm their interest to work with us. After viewing the identified needs of the user group, suppliers who believe their digital products or service meet those requirements are invited to complete a detailed application form to bid for funding or support to adapt  or scale their product or service for COVID-related needs.

3. The application is reviewed by a collaborative of national policy teams, regional and local colleagues. To determine whether the application could be appropriate for national recommendation or funding the collaborative will evaluate:

  • the extent to which the supplier’s digital products or services meet the identified user-focused requirements
  • effectiveness based upon the evidence available
  • ease of implementation and safety 
  • how well it might fit into relevant care pathways

4. The Expert Reference Group completes a final review of the applications. Consisting of clinicians and subject matter experts, the group will make recommendation(s) for action after reviewing our user research, supplier applications and available evidence.

5. The final stage is either:

Our progress so far...

Following the above five-step process, we have a detailed understanding of what is needed from different digital products or services to meet the needs of  children and young people (aged 10 - 18 years) who are experiencing increased mental health needs as a result of COVID-19 and the disruption this has caused to their formal and informal mental health support.

We have identified a number of digital solutions that meet these needs. So far we have agreed to support two suppliers. With seven other supplier products currently being reviewed, we have renewed our call for suppliers who can potentially support this user group while meeting our identified requirements to get in touch. 

The user research we conduct for each vulnerable user group also helps to identify opportunities in the care pathway where service improvements could be made through collaborating with other teams.

The first supplier to complete the process with the team and show how their product meets the user-needs identified in respect of children and young people is Healios, for its ThinkNinja app. Available through the NHS apps library, Healios is making its ThinkNinja app available to download free of charge to all 10 -18 year olds for the next four months. The role of the team is not to recommend one tool over another tool - ThinkNinja will be joining over 20 existing apps already approved on the NHS apps library for users to choose from. We will work with Healios to evaluate the impact of the offer at the end of the four month period. 

The immediate future...

We are expecting more digital products and services to come to fruition to support children and young people. It is too early to share more details at this time, but more information on this product and the others coming through the process will be provided in due course. In the coming weeks, the team will also conduct user-focused research into the needs of adults in mental health crisis  and explore rapid routes to market for the most promising solutions. 

Keeping people mentally healthy is such an important area of work. We  welcome further offers from the market that support people who are already known to mental health services. If you have a digital solution that meets this brief, please contact us by emailing  covid19@nhsx.nhs.uk. Also, please follow NHSX on twitter and read the website, for more updates on our work.