A £650,000 prize fund to develop new mental health apps for the NHS has been announced by life sciences minister George Freeman.
Speaking at the NHS Expo in Manchester, Freeman said that mental health disorders were the “single largest cause of disability in the UK”, affecting one in four people, and costing £105 billion a year.
He argued that it was therefore essential for new, digital services to be developed for those living with mental health issues. The fund will be handled by NHS England.
Freeman also re-announced plans to create an ‘endorsement’ model for NHS apps, which he said would “ensure that patients and professionals can identify which digital health apps are safe and effective to use.”
The plans, which were initially billed as a ‘kitemark’ for health apps, were first announced in November 2014, as part of the ‘Personalised Health and Care 2020’ IT framework for the NHS.
The development of the endorsement model has been taken forward by the National Institute for Health and Social Care Excellence, Public Health England, and the Health and Social Care Information Centre. Freeman told the Expo that the work should be piloted this month, and rolled-out in 2016.
NHS England already operates an Apps Library on NHS Choices, but this recently came under fire from privacy group MedConfidential.
It flagged 60 apps that it argued failed to meet the stated criteria for inclusion, which is that apps should be safe, relevant to the UK, and compliant with the Data Protection Act.
The new ‘endorsement’ process is designed to make NHS backing more robust, to the point that GPs can ‘prescribe’ apps to patients.
But other bodies, including the British Standards Institute and the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority, have plans to develop app standards and established safety marks.
The Royal College of Physicians caused an outcry in April when it told doctors they should only use apps that could be counted as medical devices if they carried a CE Mark.
Although developers expressed concern that this could stifle app development and prevent doctors from using useful apps, the RCP has not withdrawn its guidance.
In the rest of his speech, Freeman repeated the message that has come from ministers and senior figures at NHS England all week that the NHS needs to embrace technology to change working practices and engage more effectively with patients.
“We need to transform healthcare in the NHS from a 20th Century model in which health is something done to you, to a 21st Century world in which we empower people to take more responsibility over their own health and life choices,” he said.
“A new endorsement model for NHS approved apps and an innovation prize for mental health apps will help the NHS lead the way in giving patients more personalised care.”
Freeman also reiterated that new technology, and new ways of developing technology, could save the NHS money. As an example, he said the introduction of Spine2, which was built using open source technology, has delivered efficiency savings of £21 million in its first year.
Despite the new prize fund, mental health has already been a focus for digital services and apps developers.
South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust has led the way in creating a personal health record for patients, using Microsoft HealthVault.
Meanwhile there are 26 ‘mental health’ apps in the Apps Library, ranging from a portal to help healthcare providers deliver the government’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme, to mindfulness and phobia apps. However, no fewer than 14 of the apps are mood trackers.