Many Mental Health Apps Are Not Evidence Backed

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Although there has been an explosion of phone apps to aid in the treatment of mental disorders, many of those apps may not have been tested to confirm they actually benefit patients, according to a new study out of the United Kingdom.

Of the depression apps recommended by the UK's National Health Service (NHS), 85% don’t have evidence proving that they actually work, according to research published in Evidence Based Mental Health.

Because wait times to see a mental health specialist in the country are very high, many people are choosing to pay for their own treatment programs through these apps. However, because so few of them are backed by research, the NHS seal of approval may be falsely reassuring many of their true effectiveness.

Until apps have been properly evaluated and backed by evidence, they should be removed from the NHS apps library, according to Simon Leigh, MSc, of the University of Liverpool and Steve Flatt of the Liverpool Psychological Therapies Unit Community Interest Company.

In 2013, although more than 1500 apps for depression were available for download, there were only 32 published articles evaluating dsuch apps. There is a similar problem for apps addressing other psychiatric conditions, including bipolar disorder, bulimia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

This situation seems the same in the mental health apps listed in the NHS library. Fourteen of the 27 mental health apps there are for depression and anxiety, but only four provide any scientific evidence that they work, and only 2 have been evaluated for clinical effectiveness.

The pair concludes that any apps without scientific evidence of their effectiveness should be removed from the NHS library to ensure that they don’t do more harm than good.

Many Mental Health Apps Are Not Evidence Backed
85% of mental health apps recommended by the UK's National Health Service have no evidence that they work.

There is no proof that 85% of the depression apps currently recommended by the NHS for patients to manage their condition actually work, say experts in the journal Evidence Based Mental Health.

But the seal of approval from one of the world's leading healthcare systems may falsely reassure patients, many of whom are increasingly opting to fund their own treatment in the face of overstretched mental health services and the associated lengthy waits, they warn.

Until such time as evidence is forthcoming on the clinical effectiveness of these apps, and they have been properly evaluated, they should be removed from the NHS apps library, say Simon Leigh and Steve Flatt, of, respectively, the Management School at the University of Liverpool, and Liverpool Psychological Therapies Unit Community Interest Company.

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