The role of technology in transforming mental health services

We speak to Clare Rafferty of Netcall about the future role technologies such as RPA and AI will play in increasing access to mental health services in the UK

With pressure on the NHS to improve access to mental health services, technology is expected to play a key role moving foward

Mental health services have long been underfunded, with Brits facing elapsed treatment times and largely-small levels of support.

Hot off the back of the recent Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW), comes the news that almost 40% of young people – who should receive treatment within 18 weeks of being assessed – are waiting too long to access services.

And the fact that it is a challenge to provide this support 4.5 months after assessment shows just how grave the problem is.

While an injection of £2.3billion a year for mental health services by 2023/24 is promising news, as it will enable an additional 345,000 children and young people to access NHS-funded services or school and college-based support every year, it is clear that more needs to be done, and quickly.

That’s especially considering public reactions during MHAW 2021, where people took to social media to express their frustrations that barriers to mental health treatment lay in access and action, not communication.

Integrated care systems (ICSs), which aim to remove traditional divisions between hospitals, doctors, physical, and mental health, and NHS and council services, bring the promise of a more-streamlined approach to care.

Innovative technologies such as AI and RPA can not only play a pivotal role in freeing up resources and ensuring people get the care they need, but can also enable healthcare providers to build on existing processes to introduce new ideas and improve care for the better

However, in order to drive true change around how mental health services are delivered locally; technology will need to be placed at the heart.

Clare Rafferty, a patient experience expert at Netcall, told BBH: “Innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation (RPA) can not only play a pivotal role in freeing up resources and ensuring people get the care they need, but can also enable healthcare providers to build on existing processes to introduce new ideas and improve care for the better.”

Reducing admin time

A key part of unlocking better mental health care is reducing the amount of time that staff, particularly clinicians, spend on administrative duties as opposed to face-to-face patient care.

Rafferty said: “A lot of time is spent filling in information to satisfy an organisational requirement, rather than because it benefits the patient.

“This leads to care being something that is happening ‘to’ the patient as opposed to them being a part of the process.

“To overcome this, and to enable healthcare staff to reallocate their time to patient care – rather than administrative duties – intelligent automation should be a key consideration across an ICS.

“Healthcare providers should examine processes across their entire network to evaluate where efficiencies can be made through automation.

“This will be crucial to freeing up over-stretched human workers and alleviating the horrendous backlogs currently being faced by patients in desperate need of attention.”

Ultimately, greater collaboration between organisations, teamed with the right technology, will enable healthcare providers to offer better mental health service provision

The ongoing impact of sustained lockdown restrictions, potential job losses, and financial strain have taken their toll on the mental health of the nation this year, and the numbers of young adults reporting signs of depression continue to rise.

“The support needed to address this will only grow in urgency and achieving this will be dependent on leveraging technologies that drastically reduce admin time, speed up processes, and streamline patient contact,” said Raffety.

“Low-code technologies enable trusts to rebuild internal processes with automation at the core, easily, and with minimal IT intervention – placing the power back in the hands of healthcare employees to drive rapid change.”

Breaking down departmental siloes

In addition to reducing admin time, technology that has the power to break down barriers between the different teams that deliver mental health care to patients will be extremely powerful.

Rafferty explains: “With systems currently being siloed, doctors, nurses, and occupational therapists all use different systems, which is where delays can occur.

“Bringing these various systems and departments together into a multi-disciplinary team should, therefore, be a priority.

“This means there should be one place where all departments can communicate to deliver a single care plan. That plan can then stay with the patient, who should be involved and have access to it, and be added to by all the key professionals involved in their care.

“New applications, underpinned by automation and low-code technologies, can support better ways of working by vastly improving efficiency, while eliminating duplication, wastage and, most importantly, delivering better patient outcomes.”

Making effective use of available skills

Technology also has a huge role to play in the effective use of available skills, as outlined by the NHS People Plan, which aims to effectively utilise available skills.

The time to act is now, and further delays to digital transformation in this area could result in the next global crisis – a mental health pandemic

“Tech can ensure that the organisation delivers the right information, in the right hands, at the right time,” said Rafferty.

Streamlining how ICSes operate in this way can bring with it extremely-positive effects when managing mental health provision in the UK.

“RPA technologies, for example, can be built into processes, via low-code platforms, to effectively route tasks to the appropriate department. And, within that, the appropriate person.

“Making use of the available skills in this way will not only lead to better responses, but it will also result in faster resolutions.”

She concludes: “Ultimately, greater collaboration between organisations, teamed with the right technology, will enable healthcare providers to offer better mental health service provision.

“But unfortunately, healthcare providers do not have the luxury of time when making this decision.

“The time to act is now, and further delays to digital transformation in this area could result in the next global crisis – a mental health pandemic.

“Technologies that enable rapid transformation will be pivotal to avoid this.

“Now is the time for ICSes to embrace these tools in order to address this increasingly-urgent issue and provide more people with mental health support, quicker.”