Talk to the bot: AI assistant marks UK mental health breakthrough

An artificial intelligence (AI)-driven assessment tool for diagnosing mental disorders has become the first mental health chatbot to earn Class IIa UKCA (UK Conformity Assessed) medical device certification.

Using machine learning, Limbic Access is designed to support patient self-referral through digital conversations incorporated into the psychological therapy journey. The chatbot can classify common mental disorders treated by NHS Talking Therapies (IAPTs) with 93% accuracy.

The certification comes as NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services are experiencing significant capacity challenges in the face of record demand. In 2021-2022, 1.24 million referrals accessed IAPT services, compared to 1.02 million in 2020-21, an increase of 21.5%.

With services overloaded, the UK government is under pressure to boost investment. On January 23, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a £150 million investment to support mental health services and relieve pressure on healthcare workers. The money will be used for 150 new projects aimed at supporting relief efforts in mental health crisis situations and urgent mental health care.

However, the investment has been deemed insufficient. Commenting on the announcement, Paul Spencer, Head of Health, Policy & Campaigns at Mind, a mental health charity, called for further investment to address the growing crisis.

“Mental health services have suffered from underfunding compared to physical health for decades, and mental health did not receive any of the covid-19 recovery funding announced in 2021, despite massive mental health backlogs and the known impact of the pandemic on the nation. mental health,” Spencer said. “We are seeing the human cost of that play out now as people wait days in our ERs for mental health beds and people with complex mental health issues struggle with no help around us in our communities.”

Following the groundbreaking certification, Limbic Access aims to deepen links with the NHS to strengthen the psychotherapy process. The London, UK-based health technology developer has already trialled the AI ​​therapy assistant on more than 130,000 NHS patients. UKCA auditors, SGS, reviewed clinical evidence stemming from over 60,000 referrals and found that compared to standard referral methods such as phone calls and online forms, the chatbot showed a 53% improvement in recovery rates and a 45% reduction in treatment changes, if resulting in greater triage accuracy.

In an interview with Network for medical devices, Dr. Ross Harper, co-founder and CEO of Limbic, discusses how AI technology can influence mental health assessments. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

CL: What was your vision in developing Limbic Access for mental health?

Dr. Ross Harper: Our mission from the beginning has always been to use technology to make the highest quality mental health care available to everyone everywhere, regardless of their socio-economic background.

AI is the perfect technology to make this world a reality, so we set out to build something that can continuously learn about a patient’s mental state – be it from clinical screening questions, free text conversation data, or a variety of other data streams. We combine this with background algorithms that yield the probability of the patient’s possible psychological problems.

A critical piece of the puzzle we had to solve was how do we make sure this is used safely in a clinical setting? The answer could have been to replace humans with AI, but that was not appropriate in the case of our technology. Instead, we focused on how we can use AI alongside trained mental health professionals to improve the therapy process and empower them to support more people.

The system algorithms help manage self-referral by performing an initial analysis and identifying symptoms of mental illness. This can then be shared with the clinician in a way that allows them to get to the root of the patient’s problem more quickly and identify the most common problems. from that moment on an appropriate treatment plan. But the final step in using machine learning models is making sure they are properly regulated to meet the highest clinical and technical standards. That’s why our Class IIa medical device certification is important – it independently verifies that we can do what we say and can be used as an integral tool in psychotherapy.

CL: Do you see this certification as important to the evolution of the digital space for mental health and AI therapy?

Dr. Ross Harper: Yes, it’s a milestone as this is the first of its kind. It’s also exciting because this is one of the first examples of AI collaborating with clinicians in psychotherapy. The fusion of AI and human therapist is the future and the only way to safely deliver these kinds of technologies in mental health care. I think it is important that we have not only tried to digitize existing treatment exercises in an app and offer it as a tool. What we really wanted was to develop probabilistic models and use AI to provide a decision support tool, which can be immensely valuable and provide fundamental support to mental health services, which are severely overstretched worldwide.

CL: How do you see your relationship with the NHS evolving?

Dr. Ross Harper: We have a lot of admiration for the NHS and it’s the market we want to develop in. We believe in the organization and are proud of Limbic as a company founded in the UK. We hope to continue to provide this type of technology to the NHS and listen to their issues and challenges to see if our expertise in AI can support them as we very much believe in their mission and what they are for to stand.

CL: Do you want to expand into other markets outside the UK?

Dr. Ross Harper: We have our eyes open and we have explored other markets. But I think for a company like ours, narrow focus is critical because you can’t do everything at the beginning. For now, we are focused on how we can strengthen NHS psychotherapy, supporting clinicians and patients and services within this healthcare system. It goes without saying that a lot of the benefits that I’ve described that allow us to support the NHS translate to other markets that deliver psychological therapies, so we’ve looked into that purely to gather information to understand how our solutions might fit into those markets. But right now it’s the NHS for us.

CL: The mental health digital space is expanding with new technologies. How will Limbic differentiate itself from other companies?

Dr. Ross Harper: It’s hard to comment on other companies, but I can speak with authority about Limbic. We are the only technology solution regulated at this level to support triage and assessment in adult mental health care. We are also the most widely used tool of its kind in the NHS, so while others are rightly looking at entering the space, Limbic is currently the leader. We also have the evidence showing that our decision support can support both patients and clinicians because that is an important part of this puzzle rather than just being a business-to-consumer product. Other technologies also focus on wellness, and we do not position ourselves as a corporate or direct consumer wellness tool. This is also not an area that we intend to push. We consider ourselves a clinical resource – we were born in the mental health field and intend to stay in this space.

CL: What are some of the key milestones for Limbic in 2023?

Dr. Ross Harper: The further development of our triage and assessment support tool is central. We also have a product called Limbic Care, which we plan to add some exciting new functionality to in 2023. We also have new machine learning models from our lab, which will be used to create service efficiencies and improve patient experience and clinical outcomes. These are all in the pipeline so it will be an exciting year.

Talk to the bot: AI assistant marks UK mental health breakthrough

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