Inside The Growing Mental Health App Market

Dr Claire Vowell, Clinical Lead at Limbic explores…

The mental health and self-care apps market has significantly grown in recent years. Today, the American Psychological Association estimates that as many as 20,000 such apps exist, with global spending on the technology predicted to reach close to $500 million this year.

Many experts put the surge in demand down, at least partly, to the pandemic, which exacerbated mental health concerns for many while making it harder for patients to access in-person care. During this time, and in the months since, technology has helped to plug this gap. Options include internet-based remote therapy, innovative technology solutions to assist referrals and triage and r self-care solutions such as mindfulness and meditation platforms.

But while the increasing availability of digital mental health solutions has clear advantages for its growing user base, it is not without its challenges.

The need for regulation

Although there are many highly impressive digital solutions coming to market, users and practitioners alike should be aware that not all these solutions are created equal.

Much of this comes down to a lack of regulation. Only a tiny minority of the mental health apps that have exploded onto the market are developed using rigorous clinical safety standards. In a recent report, Deloitte highlighted the lack of regulation in the space, noting that “there is very little regulation around mental health or medical apps, which is cause for growing concern.” Other studies have found that the number of apps providing evidence-based advice is worryingly low; a paper published by Nature in 2019 found that only 14% included any evidence about their effectiveness.

The good news is that the healthcare system is waking up to the need for regulation. In the UK, NHS Digital is beginning to take steps toward implementing regulation.

Bodies like the Organisation for the Review of Health and Care Apps (ORCHA) currently review and certify digital health technology, ensuring they meet safety and regulatory compliance. Recently, Limbic was awarded an app rating of 92% by ORCHA, making it the highest rated triage tool..

Although we likely still have a long way to go before new policies are introduced and perfected to regulate the digital health space, the tide is turning.

Digital is not always the most appropriate route

We must recognise, too, that there are some cases in which digital mental health offerings do not pose the most suitable solution. Although Limbic’s research has shown that, for many, using digital methods to access care is the preferred route, we need to be mindful that this is not the case for everyone.

In my view, the most effective solution is to take a hybrid approach. We should look to technology to offer solutions that free up clinicians’ time to use their skill set to its best advantage, supporting more complex patients.

We developed Limbic Access, our digital mental health triage assistant, to do just that. Our online tool, certified as a medical device, works in conjunction with clinicians, assisting with patient self-referrals to help people access the help they need while unlocking service providers’ time to focus on delivering therapy. We can also provide immediate virtual support while patients wait to receive treatment from a clinician via Limbic Care.

Where next for mental health tech?

There seems little suggestion that the COVID-fuelled surge in the availability of these apps will begin to slow, at least not in the short to medium-term future.

Ultimately, this trend will move us in the right direction; the demand for mental health treatment is, unfortunately, not going anywhere, and the more patients that can access support, the better – irrespective of whether that help is delivered digitally or in-person.

Digital solutions – while far from being a silver bullet – have a vital role to play in improving accessibility and tackling taboo around seeking treatment. But as technology evolves, industry standards must do too.


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