The evidence that depression-battling apps recommended by the NHS are of any use is insufficient, according to research

Little evidence that NHS-recommended depression apps work

Up to 85 per cent of depression-battling apps recommended by the NHS do not have any proven positive effects on mental well-being, according to available research.

Despite receiving a seal of approval of the world-respected healthcare organisation, apps available in the NHS apps library and frequently recommended by doctors have not been evaluated in scientific studies and their effectiveness remains questionable, a research team from the University of Liverpool stated in the journal Evidence Based Mental Health.

The overloaded NHS is frequently recommending patients to opt for self-care due to its overstretched budget and excessive waiting times. But such practice, the authors of the paper stated, could actually cost lives.

According to available data, one in ten patients with mental health issues in England is waiting for more than a year to receive treatment, during which time one in every six may attempt suicide. Further four in ten will start self-harming and the condition of all of them is likely to worsen.

Even though it may be convenient for the overstretched NHS, recommending apps to patients should stop until credible data on their effectiveness is available.

“These options need to be well informed, scientifically credible, peer reviewed and evidence based and, importantly, their performance needs to be measured against a validated set of performance criteria,” said Simon Leigh and Steve Flatt from the University of Liverpool, in the paper.

Until then, they said, the apps should be removed from the NHS library.

There are currently 27 mental health apps listed in the NHS library, 14 of which are targeting patients with depression and anxiety. Yet only four provide any scientific proof that they work when used by patients, and only two of them have been properly evaluated for clinical effectiveness.

"Given that three in ten individuals with an untreated mental health issue now opt to pay for private treatment on account of limited NHS availability, the purchase and use of apps that are yet to demonstrate objective clinical benefit is not only a potential waste of money, but also likely to have compounding effect on levels of anxiety in those with the greatest need and least access to effective treatment," the authors warned.

"In order to ensure that apps do not do more harm than good, it is important that those presently recommended by the NHS apps library that either fail to demonstrate the evidence underlying the methodological approach taken, or evidence of effectiveness in use, are removed."

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