new survey has been launched by NIHR MindTech Healthcare Technology Co-operative to find the top ten questions about digital technology and mental health. Lucy Simons, Research Fellow, explains how asking the right questions can improve mental healthcare.

There are two issues I want to highlight in this blog and then point towards one way we are bringing them together to make sure we ‘ask the right questions’.

First, we know that health services are under strain and this is felt acutely by people with mental health problems. For example, did you know it’s estimated that only 25% of people with depression get access to adequate treatment? My guess is if this was a non-mental health condition, it would be a national scandal, but that’s another story…

Digital technology is often talked about as having the potential to transform mental healthcare - connecting people, services and data in new and exciting ways. The scope for integrating digital into mental healthcare starts with everyday things like text messaging, apps and video links for therapy sessions, through to developing new and novel treatments using virtual reality, avatars and artificial intelligence. It’s a vast field of innovation with the promise of being game-changing in relation to access, reach and effectiveness.

But given this promise we need to ensure that the ‘hype and hope’ of digital technology for mental health doesn’t flounder for lack of good evidence and research addressing clinically relevant questions.

Which brings me onto issue number two - research agendas and who gets to influence them. Research into healthcare is largely led by the commercial and the academic sectors - collectively known as ‘the researchers’. However, when the focus of their research is examined and compared to the research priorities of patients and clinicians, there appears to be a disconnect. A recent study into this issue bluntly concluded that ‘research on drugs is preferred by researchers, evaluation of non-drug treatments is preferred by patients and clinicians’ (Crowe et al, 2015).

The James Lind Alliance works to tackle this imbalance. Their ethos is to bring to the forefront priorities that patients, carers and health professionals want to see researched. They have developed a prioritisation method which has been refined and replicated over many years. Key principles integral to their work are equality - patient, carer and professional perspectives have equal value - and transparency - auditable process and management of vested interests.

Now for joining the dots....

At NIHR MindTech Healthcare Technology Co-operative, we have built a collaboration to work with the James Lind Alliance. Our aim is to identify research questions about using digital technologies for mental health problems, and then prioritise the top 10. In other words, we’ll find out which questions people with lived experience of mental health problems and health and social care professionals think are the most important. We will then widely publicise the top 10 so that researchers and research funders can see which areas of research deserve priority attention.

What questions do you have about digital technology for mental health?

The consultation to collect questions is currently open. We are keen to hear from people with personal experience of mental health problems, those who support others and people who currently work in mental healthcare. Taking part is easy and will only take a few minutes of your time.

Anyway, you don’t need to keep reading to learn about what we’re doing - meet Scout, your friendly guide to digital technology and why we need to ask the right questions! Click the image to learn more about the survey.

 Digital tech for mental health: asking the right questions


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Lucy Simons, Research Fellow, NIHR MindTech Healthcare Technology Co-operative

Lucy has been a mental health services researcher since 1998 and has a strong interest in ‘active involvement’. That is, how people experiencing mental distress can direct their own care and influence the way services are delivered. This encompasses their vital role in influencing service design, research and education for health professionals. Her current work aims to do this with a digital twist.