Limbic has launched an AI-enabled app that seeks to support overstretched NHS mental health services as they prepare for an influx of patients suffering from mental health issues triggered by the pandemic. Health Tech World talked to the company’s co-founder and CEO about the potential for AI to reduce waiting lists, boost efficiency and accelerate diagnoses
The Centre for Mental Health estimates that 8.5 million adults will need mental health support as a direct result of the pandemic. However, there have been growing concerns about the number of mental health staff available to deliver these vital services.
This issue, which has been further exacerbated by the pandemic, has largely been attributed to the limited number of available therapists in the UK and high clinician dropout rates.
As mental health services prepare for an influx of patients seeking support due to the stresses of the pandemic, a health tech startup, Limbic, has launched a new app to support clinicians and patients through the process.
In partnership with Vita Health Group, a private provider of NHS services, Limbic has launched the app across four NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services. The start up has plans to roll out the technology across the country over the next 12 months.
The app, which includes three products – Limbic Self-Care, Limbic Care and Limbic Prevent – has been introduced to help “bridge the gap” between the increase in patients and the number of available clinicians.
Using conversational AI and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) methods, Limbic says the app supports patients throughout the entire care pathway, from waitlist through to discharge.
With demand for mental health support rising, many find themselves waiting months before they receive in-person therapy on the NHS. According to the mental health charity, Mind, one in 10 people have been waiting over a year to receive treatment. Patients, who are often vulnerable and experiencing significant acute mental illness, can find themselves in a state of limbo.
“The pandemic has caused a parallel outbreak of mental illness, and it has really shone a spotlight on the psychological impact of lockdown and social isolation, and the trauma that people have gone through in the last year,” CEO and co-founder of Limbic, Ross Harper, told Health Tech World.
“There is a supply and demand problem. There is far more patient need than there are clinical resources to help everyone.
“This was true before the pandemic, but the pandemic has really jumped that up into overdrive.”
On entering the care pathway, patients can access Limbic Self Care while they wait for their therapy to begin, acting as a “companion” through what can be a long process that leaves some patients feeling disillusioned with the healthcare system.
The product can check in with patients 24-hours a day with evidence-based digital therapy. In the background, the platform uses the data collected to construct a clinical profile of the patient.
“Limbic is context aware [and] responds in a sensible way, so you can actually feel like you’re having a conversation,” Harper explained.
“It is essentially asking patients how they’re feeling, helping them keep track of their thoughts and their feelings. [It] responds in the moment with an evidence-based exercise or coping strategy, in response to what the patient has said they are experiencing right then.
“Rather than being on a blind, computerised program, it’s very dynamic, fun to talk to and very interactive. Like with a therapist, it pulls on expertise and offers that in the moment based on what has been inputted.”
There are many AI-assisted mental health apps on the market, but Limbic claims it is doing things differently, bringing in the help of clinicians to personalise the experience. As a result, the company says it is seeing high levels of engagement compared to other mental health apps.
Harper describes Limbic as “somewhere between a wellbeing app and a telemedicine platform”.
Once patients come off the waitlist and enter into therapy, Limbic Self-Care transitions into Limbic Care. Information from their sessions is inputted into the app to offer a more personalised strategy created by their therapist.
The app provides personalised tips to the patient in between sessions and according to Harper, can reference things as unique to the patient as street names, friends and family members.
“When Limbic Self Care turns into Limbic Care, personalisation shoots up. It’s delivering that therapist expertise in the moment, 24/7, when it matters most,” Harper said.
“We’re getting real user engagement there, because the users are feeling like this is for them.”
Limbic claims that the app can also boost efficiency and help clinicians save valuable time by offering information on the patient gathered in the weeks or months prior to the first therapy session.
“[Limbic] is helping in both directions, helping the patient with personalised coping strategies and also doing remote monitoring to empower the clinician so that everybody in the equation is winning,” Harper continued.
“It means the first few sessions of therapy don’t need to be about data collection. Limbic can be out there talking to the patient, taking the information, organising that into useful insights and letting the clinician run with it and turn an hour long session into a thirty-minute session [with] the same outcomes.”
As the patient’s course of therapy comes to an end, the app evolves into Limbic Prevent; a tool designed to reduce the chance of relapse.
Relapse is a common issue in mental health services with some data suggesting that as many as one in two relapse within the first 12 months after being discharged.
Again, the platform refers to personalised coping strategies designed by the patients’ therapist, aiming to support patients as they return to their normal lives.
“Rather than just forget all that personalised content that was created during therapy, Limbic locks that down and [becomes] a personalised prevention toolbox,” Harper added.
“The [app] was there during their therapy conversations, so we know everything that was said and we’re there to remind them of everything they learned.”
Limbic has received positive feedback from clinicians and patients. A beta test brought the app to private practices where four hundred clinicians used the app with their patients.
80 percent of patients said they would be disappointed if they could no longer use Limbic. Meanwhile, clinicians stated in their feedback that the app made their job “easier” and helped them better engage with their patients, Harper said.
“It’s been something that’s felt quite different to other apps that are out there because of the interactive element [to] it,” said Dr Romy Sherlock, a private clinical psychologist who was involved with the beta test.
“Getting a digest a day or two before the session just to have a look, see what people are entering kind of makes me feel like I’m going into that session armed with a bit of information about how the week has gone and might inform the prep I do for the session in terms of what we might be focusing on.”
Over the next twelve months, Limbic aims to have its app in the hands of patients and clinicians in IAPT services across the country.
Looking beyond the launch, Harper said that his team intends to expand the platform to GP practices where the majority of mental health issues are first identified.
“If we can expand limbic to the GP practices, we can potentially help a totally new part of the NHS. It’s about focusing on the talk therapy clinics within the NHS and then beginning to look into the other aspects of the NHS where mental health is still an issue.”
Harper predicts that AI therapy will become increasingly commonplace over the next decade and has the potential to reduce the burden placed on an overstretched mental health service.
“Things that we will be looking at, and I think AI as a field should be looking at moving forward, is risk monitoring – being able to identify those patients who are in need of immediate intervention to prevent instances of self harm or worse.
“We also want to build a digital profile for each service user. So that we can predict with decent accuracy which treatment options are likely to be most successful for each individual. The best we have at the moment is clinical intuition and a bit of trial and error. If we can get that trial and error down, we can massively reduce the time it takes for somebody to reach recovery.
“It’s a complicated idea, [but] we believe artificial intelligence could revolutionise mental healthcare.”