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NHS England sets out digital mental health care innovation funding plans

Neil Merrett Published 13 April 2017

Seven mental health care providers will receive funds to develop new technologies to better curb service pressures; update also published for wider Five Year Forward View strategy


Seven mental health trusts will aim to pioneer the introduction of new digital functions such as patient-focused apps and the availability of real-time records to relevant care staff as part of an NHS England funding drive to encourage more interoperable services nationally.

In total, participating trusts will be provided with up to £70m to help meet the aims of becoming ‘Global Digital Exemplars for Mental Health’ that will later support a wider number of organisations across the NHS to make better use of IT for care.

The funding is broken down into £35m of funds that can be matched with an additional £35m in investment from the trusts themselves.

The seven organisations chosen to serve as exemplars for the strategy are:

  • Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
  • Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust
  • Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust
  • Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust
  • Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust
  • South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust
  • Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust

According to NHS England, specific focuses being undertaken by these exemplars include the Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust working with Stanford University on an app to anticipate and respond to potential self-harm or suicide risks.

“A prototype has been developed and researchers are preparing a feasibility study to explore the usability of the technology and how the digital platform performs against treatment as usual,” said NHS England.

Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust has meanwhile moved to a single patient record system for its entire operations to support improved mobile access for staff, while Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust is focused on devising an online care platform. The technology is intended to provide tested psychological therapies for a number of conditions such as post-traumatic stress or depression via a computer or mobile device.

Professor Tim Kendall, national clinical director for Mental Health at NHS England and NHS Improvement, noted that the country’s mental health services were already using new technology to try and reduce service pressures.

“Initiatives range from virtual appointments for people who feel more comfortable doing that than meeting face to face; or providing street triage teams to secure access to essential patient information via a tablet when they are called to support someone experiencing a mental health crisis,” said Kendall.

“This investment will help frontline staff and service users identify those opportunities for new service models enabled by digital technology that make a clear difference to peoples’ lives.”

The funding programme will form part of NHS England’s Paperless 2020 agenda that is focused on realising national aims of replacing traditional pen and paper methods of working with robust digital services in the next three years - a target that has since been questioned.

A review last year by University of California Professor Bob Wachter into NHS efforts to realise a fully digital UK healthcare system concluded that the 2020 paperless aims should be regarded as “unrealistic”. Wachter therefore encouraged a focus instead on ensuring a high level of digital maturity for all trusts by 2023.

Amidst changing challenges facing the healthcare sector, NHS England has itself published an update to its wider Five Year Forward View strategy that aims for closer integration of health and social care services and systems by the end of the current decade.

The ‘next steps’ of the strategy have been unveiled to mark what NHS England describes as the third phase of the organisation's life and are intended to focus on the actual of delivery and implementation of the key priorities of the Five Year Forward View.

The upcoming ambitions include launching an academy to support the training of chief information officers and chief clinical information officers as a means to improve in-house skills for undertaking technology initiatives.

Over the course of 2017, NHS England has also committed to working on the design of online triage services to allow patients to share their symptoms and get targeted advice or a call back from healthcare professionals.

“We will be testing apps, web tools and interactive avatars in local areas and using detailed evaluation to define the best approach,” stated the Five Year Forward View strategy. “By December 2017 all areas will have an NHS 111 online digital service available that will connect patients to their Integrated Urgent Care via NHS 111.”

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