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A new NHS approach to adoption of digital psychological therapies

Following last month’s launch of the first national NHS mental health campaign, Every Mind Matters, we share a new initiative within the NHS England Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme —the development of new assessment criteria to support the adoption of digital psychological therapy products within NHS IAPT services.

MedCity Partnerships and Programme Lead, Sarah Bruce-White, sat down with Emma Storey and Zohra Khaku of NHS England’s Mental Health Team to discuss what the IAPT criteria will mean for developers, commissioners, clinicians and patients.

Sarah: MedCity has previously contributed to development of the NICE and NHSX evidence standards frameworks for digital health technologies, and we are now working with you on developing the new IAPT assessment criteria to help developers, commissioners and clinicians assess digital psychological therapies. How will this potentially fit into the existing IAPT programme, which has actually been in place for a while hasn’t it?

Emma: The IAPT programme was set up by in 2008 as a way of systematically organising, and improving access to, evidence-based psychological therapies within the NHS. Since then it has helped to transform the treatment of adult anxiety disorders and depression, by giving more and more patients access to what we call Talking Therapies.

Zohra: IAPT is a really ambitious programme to provide access to talking therapies across England. In 2019/2020, for example, over 1.15 million people were able to access our services. One of the most important things to note is that you can self-refer, which makes it much easier for patients to connect directly with the services that can help them. [You can find out how to self-refer here: NHS talking therapies – NHS (]

Emma: There are two key objectives of the criteria we are developing:

The first is to give new developers entering the market a better understanding of what’s required by the NHS. We want to have clear criteria that is open and transparent.

The second is around giving commissioners confidence by clearly articulating if developers have met clinical criteria with high-quality, evidence-based content, and has generated the required levels of evidence of effectiveness to be used within IAPT. MedCity has been supporting this work as our engagement partner.

Sarah: Currently companies who want to have their digital healthcare tools adopted by the NHS go through the process of endorsement according to the Digital Technology Assessment Criteria (DTAC). That gives them a score in four key areas: clinical safety, data protection, technical security and interoperability. How would the IAPT criteria fit into this process?

Emma: DTAC provides a baseline criteria that sits across all different forms of digital technology, for use within health, and therefore doesn’t go down into that level of detail that we would like to see within IAPT.

We’ve been working really closely with the DTAC team on integration, so that if a product going through DTAC signals that they are a psychological therapy product, and they meet a set of core criteria, then they will be funnelled into an extra couple of steps of assessment for clinical content and evidence of effectiveness. We have developed it as a single process, so that products could have DTAC and IAPT DET approval together.

Sarah: In May, the Office of National Statistics reported that depression rates in the UK had doubled since the Covid-19 pandemic began. During this time, when people have been suffering more feelings of isolation and anxiety, the adoption of digital health technologies has also rapidly increased. Has this been one of the drivers for IAPT’s new criteria and this idea of an integrated DTAC and IAPT approval process?

Emma: During COVID there has been a move towards digitally-enabled care being delivered within IAPT, and part of this piece of work is to ensure that the products used align with IAPT standards of care.

Zohra: We want our engagement as wide as possible to make sure that we’re getting a broad range of views in, before we launch the new criteria next year. We are looking to engage with developers of digitally enabled technologies who have been through, or are ready to go through, the DTAC framework, to provide feedback on the proposed assessment model. Feedback is invaluable in developing the criteria, so that it works for everyone, most importantly the patient.

About the contributors

Zohra Khaku is Senior Project Manager for IAPT in the National Mental Health Team at NHS England.

Emma Storey is Senior Project Manager within the Digital Mental Health Team at NHS England.

Help shape the new criteria

If you are a developer, clinician or commissioner in this space, and would like to help shape the new IAPT criteria, please find more information and the criteria here and we would appreciate if you could complete the survey here.

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