Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust is advancing in its plans to develop an app which anticipates and responds to suicide risk, its chief executive has said.

The mental health trust, which provides services in North West England and beyond, has been working with California’s Stanford University – one of the world’s leading research and teaching institutions – to  develop the application.

A prototype has been created and researchers are now preparing a feasibility study to explore the usability and performance of the digital platform.

Mersey Care chief executive Joe Rafferty told Digital Health News that the app will offer a more sophisticated way of identifying those who may be at risk of suicide.

“It would be a move away from just relying on numbers and some fairly crude measures of when people may be at risk of suicide and suicidal ideation (thoughts), to a more refined view of the sorts of language people use; the types of contacts they make; what they say in the clinic versus what they say on social media”, Rafferty said.

He said the app is based on natural language processing – by which computers analyse and understand human language. Users will intially input information to allow the trust to better understand the sorts of language they use.

The idea is to explore whether it is possible to identify people who may be having suicidal ideation through the sorts of conversations they have and language they use.

Rafferty added: “Can we then use that information as a mechanism to think about how we can escalate their risk of moving to actual attempted suicide.”

He said the app will provide healthcare professionals with the opportunity to not only have a view of the patient when they attend the clinic, but a view of the patient in real life.

“If we can start to use natural language processing and artificial intelligence, we can start to think about flagging the risk of people to immediately put crisis services around them.”

Mersey Care is one of seven global digital exemplars. The app development forms part of the GDE programme which supports organisations to pioneer digital services.

The trust is yet to receive the promised £5 million in funding from the GDE programme. However Rafferty said the delay hasn’t stalled the development of this app nor progression of other projects.

“We’re currently in the process of working with NHS Digital to understand the funding formula and the flow of funds… The opportunity as a GDE to avail [ourselves of] some additional funding certainly speeds up the digitisation of our services”, Rafferty said.

“While the issue of when it comes is important, it’s probably more important to know it’s there.”