We’ve all heard the story: the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated a boom in the already growing HealthTech sector, with scaling innovations in remote care quickly becoming a necessity and bringing along with it a boost in applications of other new technologies across health and care. While this story is both largely true and verging on ‘old news’, there is a particularly exciting slice of the sector which - despite only just starting to get its legs in health and care - is poised to make significant impacts on how we deliver care: extended reality (XR).
While XR may conjure images of families stuck inside during lockdown experimenting with VR headsets, these technologies are already being used across health and care in a number of contexts. One of the most promising use case areas is within mental health treatment, where XR has demonstrated the potential to make particularly meaningful impacts. The value for patients of this opportunity should be clear, given the growing scale of mental health concerns nationally with reports indicating that 1 in 4 people in England will experience a mental health problem every year and treatment estimated to be costing the UK economy over £100 billion a year. If we can effectively improve mental health treatment through innovative applications of XR, we stand to make huge impacts on patient outcomes and quality of care across an area of particular - and growing - public health concern. Yet to achieve this, we must understand the current barriers to adoption and identify what can be done to address and overcome them.
First, let’s cover the basics: XR refers to Extended Reality and covers Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality (MR), Virtual Reality (VR), haptics, interfaces, platforms, and software and is often referred to as ‘immersive technologies’. The global immersive technology market is accelerating out of the pandemic and reaching the tipping point of wide scale penetration in both the private and public domains. Worldwide spending on XR is forecast to accelerate, growing from just over $12 billion in 2020 to $72.8 billion in 2024.
Within the UK health and care sector, XR tools are already being used - though we are certainly still in the early stages of adoption. Initial use cases range from training future pharmacists using VR headsets to empathetically interact with patients in a controlled environment to virtual simulations giving surgeons greater access to theatre time and ability to rehearse complex procedures. In addition, the NHS are creating a Dynamic Purchasing system to aid the procurement of best in class XR, immersive learning and related technologies. The use of these technologies in the health and care sector has reduced the use of restrictive practices, limited the impact of Covid-19 measures and improved the experience and outcomes of service users. As a result, they are increasingly being considered as reliable, cost-effective and innovative solutions to consider.
Mental health specifically is a growing concern nationally, as reflected by the NHS Long Term Plan and devolved government policies making a renewed commitment to improve and widen access to mental health support, more effective and cost-saving measures are needed. The UK Government and wider health and care sector have recognised the potential for digital therapeutics solutions across the UK, with NICE recommending nine new digital therapies for patients with depression and anxiety in March 2023 to free up clinician time by potentially halving the time spent on standard care. Similarly, digital services improve individual accessibility and reduce stigma associated with accessing mental health support and traditional talking therapies, ensuring support for a greater proportion of the UK population, across ages and cultures.
Despite this growth in the immersive technology sector and an increased adoption of digital therapeutic solutions for mental health treatment, there has not yet been an approved digital therapeutic using XR/immersive technology for mental health treatment on the UK market. This gap is certainly worth bridging, with research showing immersive technology’s effectiveness as a mental health treatment within several conditions including neurodevelopmental disorders, psychotic disorders, depression, anxiety disorders, phobias, trauma and eating disorders.
New strategic support to bring together immersive technology providers and innovators in the XR sector with clinicians and researchers could fast track new R&D and solutions to deliver on this demonstrated effectiveness and make positive impacts on the mental health needs of patients across the UK.
Launching a fully regulated digital therapeutic in the UK has a benchmark time of 2 years, and costs upwards of £250,000. These costs and barriers are exacerbated in premature industries. For innovators developing XR products for mental health treatment, there are several unique challenges:
Many immersive technologies for mental health treatment are at very early stages of development and therefore need strategic support to get them into clinical settings. As a result, an effective support system to ensure long-term adoption by users and frontline services within the NHS and beyond, is needed in order to grow the sector and support innovation - and there’s no shortage of potential out there. We’ve highlighted just some of the startups/SMEs that are working in this sector today in the pdf below to illustrate the range of solutions poised to scale in this market.
Below, we outline a few key actions that will support innovators in this space in the most effective way possible:
Programmes of support which meet the key actions to grow the sector and support innovation are essential to unlock the potential of XR for mental health treatment. The UKRI funded Mindset programme - a £20m fund to invest in projects which deliver immersive digital mental health therapeutics and to create a supportive ecosystem to enable their commercialisation - has opened an opportunity to catalyse collaboration between healthcare and creative sectors, develop innovation within the UK for global wide potential, and provide urgently needed digital delivery models for mental health services.
In order for the UKRI Mindset programme to be effective in its ambitions, support should be sought from organisations that:
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