The Scottish government includes digital technologies in its strategy to cope with the expected additional pressures on its health service this winter
"Whilst our everyday lives may feel more normal, the cumulative effect on our staff, and the nature of pent-up demand mean that our services have been, and continue to be, under substantial pressure." Humza Yousaf, cabinet secretary for health and social care, Scottish government
The Scottish government is to invest £600m on its health care system this winter, some of which will be spent on digital mental health solutions.
In its strategy published this week, entitled Heath and social care: winter resilience overview 2022 to 2023, the government sets out eight priorities for its health care system this winter. These include, for example, making sure people receive care at home where appropriate, expanding the workforce and prioritising care for the most vulnerable.
To help with the first priority, people receiving care at home, the government is expanding digital mental health service capacity. “Digital therapies offer people the chance to access support whenever they need it,” the strategy says. These therapies include 22 computerised Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) treatments, some of which will be accessible “without a referral from a medical professional.” It will also increase access to internet-enabled CBT, so that people can speak to a mental health professional online.
The government has already launched its Digital Mental Health Innovation Cluster, which offers support to businesses developing digital mental health solutions, and it has also created a wellbeing website, Mind to Mind, which provides access to short video case studies showing people managing their mental health conditions, and signposts people to support services.
Digital technologies will also be used to help with the fifth priority, which is to protect planned care with a focus on continuing to reduce long waits. The strategy states that it will develop Once for Scotland pathways to “deliver additional capacity across Scotland, harnessing digital opportunities and new options to access and deliver patient care.” Once for Scotland is an approach that involves making sure the different Scottish health boards are working in the same way.
In a foreword to the strategy, the cabinet secretary for health and social care, Humza Yousaf, wrote that “the impact of the pandemic on our health and social care system is ongoing, and whilst our everyday lives may feel more normal, the cumulative effect on our staff, and the nature of pent-up demand mean that our services have been, and continue to be, under substantial pressure.” He added that winter and surge planning was now a “continuous and integral part of our work, with work on surge planning and delivery taken forward in partnership to ensure we maintain organisational resilience with a whole system approach.”
Yousaf also wrote that the scale of the “escalating Cost Crisis, combined with the continued uncertainty posed by Covid-19, and a possible resurgence of Flu,” meant that the winter would be “even more challenging.” Another wave of Covid-19, he added could “exacerbate an already pressured system.” The eight priorities were designed to “guide and focus our collective efforts in preparing for winter.”
It’s welcome news that Scotland has developed a strategy for tackling the health challenges in the winter months. The decision to strengthen digital mental health support through offering online CBT with a counsellor will enable people who have no local access, and who find it difficult to travel, to receive support wherever they are in the country. The introduction of self-help CBT packages will also make it easier for people with mild mental health problems to receive help. Scotland’s mental health problems are substantial, however, and include high numbers of people with alcohol and drug addiction – whose needs, as a recent report showed, are not being adequately met under the current system. While Scotland’s winter strategy is a step in the right direction, much more needs to be done to tackle the country’s growing mental health crisis. It is crucial to remember that digital solutions are not a replacement for mental health services and should augment current offerings and enable flexible access.