Perspectives: why digital apps need an in-house clinical safety lead

TTA has an open invitation to industry leaders to contribute to our Perspectives non-promotional opinion area. Today’s contribution is from Emma Taylor of Wysa, an AI-enabled therapy coach for mental and emotional wellness. It recently was granted an FDA Breakthrough Device Designation prior to premarket review. Ms. Taylor is Wysa’s UK child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) Clinical Lead and Clinical Safety Officer. She is a clinical nurse consultant specializing in children and young adult mental health, including digital mental health.

Interested contributors should contact Editor Donna. (Pictures and graphs are welcome)

One of the reasons that the NHS is so widely loved by patients and revered around the world is its commitment to doing the best thing by patients. Where many patients are is online. With over 350,000 digital health apps on the market, and an average of 250 new health apps released every day, how can we uphold safety standards while putting the best tools into the hands of clinicians, patients, employers, and employees?

Unfortunately, most tech and digital organizations don’t have in-house clinical safety officers to be accountable for clinical safety and ensure that effective clinical risk management is carried out at all stages of development and deployment.

A clinical safety officer’s role is to ensure that conclusions which are drawn are complete, objective, and based on robust evidence. Often that means pushing back and drawing an inference that perhaps a particular intervention or tool is not right for a section of the population.

Having an in-house clinical safety officer at a technology company enables them to be faster moving without compromising on integrity and safety. Having this capability in house allows a tech company to accelerate innovation in a way that is safe and aligned to both system-wide and patient needs, bearing in mind what the NHS needs to deliver the best health outcomes for the population.

As well as in-depth understanding of the rigorous evidence bases for the interventions we are delivering, we have to look at the wider context in which a tool is operating. So within mental health, it’s about seeing social media trends, and the impact that viral videos for example might be having. It’s about seeing the effects of the economy and the cost of living. Or world events and worry. It’s about looking at the language people are using and ensuring any AI language processing picks up on potential nuance and is aware of flags for concern. Most importantly, it is about working with service users to understand the contexts within which they use the technology and how they need it to work for them.

It is also essential to listen to users, and reflect and identify the experiences of people and what they want, need, and what works for them. Young people want more digital tools for mental health. That is what they are telling us. But not every technology company is doing the right thing. If they do not have clinical safety at their core, negative outcomes can occur. A clinical safety officer is constantly asking questions. What happens if this is taken out of context? What happens if something interacts? What if someone hacks? And ultimately what is the clinical risk?

Working as a clinical safety officer is an incredibly collaborative role, where it is necessary to collaborate with service users and staff across organizations such as ORCHA as well as the NHS. This means that we are able to embrace the legislative changes and be part of the conversations around what needs to be in the next round of legislation, to keep safety standards as high as possible.

Risks are always shifting and changing, and an in-house clinical safety officer means that clinical safety documents are kept up to date and implemented so that patients get the best outcomes. It’s important not to get caught up in the capabilities of technology in and of itself, and to ensure that the digital tool is safe and aligned to the real world and the system in which it operates. In the end, having a clinical safety lead is about patient safety and creating an environment that digital health care is an integral and robust part of, innovating for the best patient outcomes.

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