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£4 million project to make virtual reality treatment available in NHS mental health services


Health minister Lord O’Shaughnessy has announced the winner of the 2017 Mental Health Challenge Awards by the NIHR Invention for Innovation Programme at the 2018 MQ Science Meeting 1 February 2018, and invited researchers to apply to the 2018 competition.

The winning project from the 2017 competition will enable state-of-the-art psychological therapy to be delivered via virtual reality (VR) in the NHS to benefit patients with psychosis. The ground-breaking project brings together a unique team of NHS trusts, universities, a mental health charity, the Royal College of Art, and a University of Oxford tech start-up.

Daniel Freeman, project lead from Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry and NIHR Research Professor said:

“Virtual reality treatment can help patients transform their lives. When people put on our headsets, a virtual coach takes them into computer-generated simulations of the situations they find troubling.

“The coach guides the patient through these scenarios, helping them practise techniques to overcome their difficulties. Patients often find it easier to do this work in the virtual world – and they enjoy using our VR applications – but the beauty is that the benefits transfer to the real world.”

This new treatment is automated, thanks to the virtual coach that leads the therapy, and it uses inexpensive VR kit so has the potential for widespread use in the NHS.

Video credit: Oxford VR

The funding is the result of a winner-takes-all competition in which the NIHR challenged research teams across the nation to come up with innovative technological solutions to help people with mental health problems. Today the search for disruptive technologies in the mental health space continues with the launch of the 2018 competition.

Martin Hunt, NIHR i4i Programme Director said:

"I am delighted we have been able to attract and support such an ambitious, potentially transformational project, from a world class team.

"I hope that the 2018 competition attracts a similar calibre of applications to enable us to support the translation of more ground breaking technologies, for the benefit of people living with mental health conditions."

Lord O’Shaughnessy said:

“I’d like to offer my congratulations to the winners of this award.

“We know that tackling the increasingly complex health challenges we face means harnessing the potential of new technology.

“Through the NIHR, we spend £1bn per year bringing great British innovations into the NHS for the benefit of patients.”

The Award is enabling a diverse team to be assembled, bringing together patients, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, designers, computer scientists, healthcare experts, statisticians, health economists. As well as the McPin Foundation, they are working with the Royal College of Art, who will contribute innovative, socially inclusive design; NIHR MindTech, who are specialists in the development and adoption of new digital technologies in mental health; the University of Oxford spinout company Oxford VR/Nowican, who will build the treatment and help plan for the long-term adoption of the technology; and several NHS mental health trusts, who will trial the treatment and its implementation.

Dr Jennifer Martin from NIHR MindTech MedTech Co-operative said:

“This is a fantastic opportunity to develop and evaluate a new treatment that has the potential to transform people’s lives, and we’re particularly excited about working in partnership with patients and NHS staff as part of this project.

“We believe that this collaborative approach will help us to develop a VR treatment that is enjoyable and easy to use, and that will be taken up across the NHS so that as many people as possible can benefit.”