Demand for mental health services has soared since the COVID-19 pandemic. In the UK alone an estimated 1.6 million people are awaiting treatment, while a further eight million who do not qualify for NHS help are experiencing day-to-day challenges.
Increasingly digital therapeutics (DTx) are being considered as an option to fill the gaps in healthcare provision. They have the potential to be woven into the patient journey, empowering patients either whilst they wait for therapy, post discharge, or in tandem with therapy.
Liz Ashall-Payne, founding CEO of the Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Apps (ORCHA) is a strong believer in the power of these digital tools, which will be discussed in detail at HIMSS22 Europe next month. Consumer research by ORCHA found that younger people, and women with children at home particularly appreciated the flexibility and discretion DTx offer.
“DTx have massive potential to iron out the uneven way in which mental health support is accessed. They offer a confidential, cost-effective, and convenient route to support,” Ashall-Payne says.
Yet in ORCHA’s assessments of 614 DTx, half of the apps tested fell below quality thresholds. How can we ensure that therapeutics on offer are safe, secure and effective?
“The public is right to be concerned about data security and the clinical effectiveness,” concedes Ashall-Payne. “An immediate first step any organisation can make is to actively direct the public to safe digital health, assessed against quality standards.”
She adds that it is crucial to include healthcare professionals in the assessment process.
“When a digital health recommendation comes from a healthcare professional, higher take-up rates are seen and research has shown that the odds of being satisfied with an app are over 100 times higher,” she explains.
ORCHA is working with the NHS in the UK, as well in Canada and Holland to establish libraries of DTx for mental health support.
“The technology has to be safe and the healthcare workforce has to be able to recommend and prescribe these tools to patients in need. In short, there has to be an infrastructure which echoes the one we already have for medicines, “concludes Ashall-Payne.
CUTTING THE RED TAPE
During the pandemic, startups rose to the challenge of providing digital tools, as demand for mental health services soared and lockdowns prohibited access to in-person support services.
The myriad innovative solutions on offer have included clinician based virtual care sessions, mental health platforms working to connect communities, and meditation and sleep-support apps.
“Key catalysts in the revolutionisation of digital mental health have been startups,” says Laura Broek, health project officer for Allied For Startups (AFS), a global umbrella of startup associations. “Startups have hopped on board this unprecedented opportunity to offer speedy, innovative, and flexible solutions to people all around the world.”
AFS runs the DTx Project, which brings together more than 45 digital health entrepreneurs, policymakers and other healthcare stakeholders to support innovation in Europe.
“The availability of digital solutions on a mobile phone or laptop contributes to the democratisation of healthcare and a step closer to making universal access to care a reality,” adds Broek.
However, startups often have limited resources to devote to decoding the bureaucracy around topics such as reimbursement schemes, access to health data, or interoperability standards.
According to Broek, entrepreneurs need to be empowered with the right tools to scale if mental health innovations are to successfully reach the market. She sees the harmonisation of the health tech policy ecosystem across Europe as a crucial step in overcoming barriers for entrepreneurs.
“A large barrier faced by digital health entrepreneurs revolves around navigating fragmented and overly complex regulations. In creating a stronger health union across Europe, entrepreneurs should just have to scale once – not 27 times,” she says.
AFS launched the HealthTech Charter in 2021 as a best practice repository of the most empowering policies and measures for digital health innovation to succeed across Europe.
“It provides an opportunity to shape the EU into a hub for digital health scaleups and creates benchmarks to inform policy makers what innovators need to succeed. We urge policy makers and ecosystem builders to consider startup perspectives to advance digital therapeutics in Europe and beyond,” explains Broek.
Ashall-Payne and Broek will be speaking at the session on Advancing Digital Therapeutics in Mental Health: Improving Lives and Tackling Inequalities at the HIMSS22 European Health Conference and Exhibition, which is taking place June 14-16, 2022.
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