Publication Digital Health and Care 2 July, 2019

Making the right choices: using data-driven technology to transform mental healthcare

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This report examines the current landscape of data-driven technologies and their applications in mental healthcare, highlighting areas where these tools offer the most potential for the NHS and its patients.

It discusses what makes mental health different from other areas of health, and the implications this has for the application of data-driven tools. It examines barriers to implementation, and proposes ways to move forward.

Going beyond the hype

Mental health is undergoing a ‘digital revolution’. While much focus in recent years has been placed on consumer-facing digital solutions, such as mental health apps, the landscape of data-driven tools in mental health is much broader. Capitalising on the opportunities offered by data-driven technologies will require NHS leaders to cut through the hype surrounding these technologies and build a greater understanding of where the biggest transformational benefits lie.

Why mental health needs a different approach

Mental health presents tensions and ‘sensitivities’ that create specific challenges for the application of data-driven technologies. Approaches to diagnosis and treatment must be nuanced and contextualised. People living with mental illness face discrimination and stigma, creating barriers to accessing high-quality care, as well as heightened concerns about how patient data is accessed. Capacity to give consent about data sharing in mental health cannot always be guaranteed, and special consideration needs to be given to ensuring data-driven technologies are used in a way that safeguards people’s privacy.

What will this mean for the NHS and its patients

Data-driven technologies are often hailed as a solution to the challenges facing mental health services. However, in the short-term their potential lies in relieving the pressure on mental health services by streamlining repetitive tasks and giving practitioners more time to spend on direct patient care. In the long-term, these tools could enable the better delivery of preventative and personalised care, by opening up new types of data collection and analysis to enhance understandings of mental health.

Creating systemic change

One of the main barriers to the successful implementation of data-driven technologies in mental healthcare is the lack of structured and accessible data. The NHS needs to move forward with the digitisation agenda, improving data interoperability and portability through the development and enforcement of open standards. Realising the potential for data-driven technologies will also require the NHS to build a trustworthy system that meets the expectations of patients, healthcare professionals and the public.

Key recommendations

  • The National Institute for Care and Health Excellence should make guidelines and protocols machine-readable to inform Clinical Decision Support Systems used in mental healthcare. This would make the guidelines more accessible to frontline practitioners and enable the guidelines to be continuously improved in accordance with up-to-date clinical evidence.
  • In order to improve understanding of mental health conditions, NHS Digital should develop a repository using data held by NHS organisations to help researchers securely identify suitable participants for mental health research studies and assess the feasibility of research projects at early stages. Similar governance frameworks to the Scottish Health Research Register should be employed.
  • NHSX should require all healthcare providers to design interoperable systems and ensure data portability. This would allow data generated from technologies such as wearables and sensors to be transferred across platforms.