A service that offers therapy for people with depression and anxiety via the internet is aiming to “take the fight to mental illness”.
Ieso Digital Health allows people to take part in one-on-one Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) sessions with qualified therapists at a time and place that suits them, as well as read transcripts of their online meeting and complete extra work they may be asked to do via their computer, tablet or smartphone.
The company’s Clinical Decision Support tool uses artificial intelligence to analyse anonymised data from tens of thousands of cases of online therapy, and offers advice on a person’s condition. This gives therapists a better chance of making an accurate diagnosis and therefore delivering more effective treatment.
Ieso uses Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform to train the AI and host its CBT service, due to the security, compliance, and governance features and the large number of cloud-based tools on offer.
CBT is an effective type of talking therapy used to treat a range of common mental health problems, such as stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety, phobias and panic disorders. It works by helping people manage different situations or problems by changing the way they think, feel and behave.
There is huge demand for CBT sessions in the UK, which usually take place at a health centre or hospital, last for an hour each and run for six weeks. According to the British charity Mind, two in five GP appointments now involve mental health, and those who are referred for treatment will face a wait of up to 18 weeks.
Ieso wants people to get the help they need straight away.
“The big problem in mental health care across the world is that there’s a scarcity of clinicians,” said Valentin Tablan, Senior Vice-President for Artificial Intelligence at Ieso, who also contributed to Microsoft’s recent research on AI. “The current method of providing therapy is not something that’s scalable; there is no way to address the high need for mental health care.
“Unfortunately, there is also stigma around mental health, and some people don’t want to be seen to be seeking help. So, being able to access help online from the comfort of their own home, or office, or even a park bench, is really convenient, and allows people to access mental health care in a very discreet way.
“Our service is also available 24/7, so patients can access it outside of normal business hours. That’s not normally possible in face-to-face mental health services.”
Ieso delivers CBT over the internet via the company’s therapy platform. At the time of their appointment, the patient logs in via an app or the website and communicates with their therapist via typed messages. All Ieso’s therapists are accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and the company works under a programme run by the NHS called Improving Access to Psychological Therapies.
Conducting sessions via messaging “removes the pressure of having a face-to-face conversation, and can allow you to express your true, inner feelings”, Ieso states on its website.
The company has so far treated more than 20,000 people, mainly in England, with numbers almost doubling every year. Ninety-one percent of patients said they would recommend the service.
Part of the appeal is that patients can look at transcripts of their session, which can help them complete the weekly “homework” set by CBT therapists.
“The real treatment happens between sessions, when the patient completes activities that aim to break the cycle of thoughts, sensations and behaviours that are causing their mental health problem,” Tablan said. “This can be a thought diary or a worry diary. It’s something they are encouraged to do as often as possible between sessions, and something that is traditionally completed on paper. People usually fill it in when they get home in the evening, but that means trying to remember everything they did during the day – how they felt, why they felt that way etc.
“If that activity lives on your phone, you can interact with it as and when you need it. If you do it in the moment, it will be a more accurate representation of how you are feeling. We’re in the 21st century, we all have phones in our pockets, it makes sense to use something other than paper.”
Ieso also helps the therapist, too. In a face-to-face meeting, therapists will often take notes on paper, they are on their own with the patient and it can be difficult for them to remember everything. Now, they can revisit the transcript at any time to get a comprehensive understanding of any session they were involved in.
Tablan sees positives on both sides if it raises the profile of mental health.
“A lot of us know what to do to take care of our physical health. We know that we should exercise, we know that we should eat healthily, but not many of us take the same kind of care for our mental health. We believe that should change.”