Closing the accessibility gap to mental health treatment with a personalized self-referral chatbot

Nat Med. 2024 Feb;30(2):595-602. doi: 10.1038/s41591-023-02766-x. Epub 2024 Feb 5.


Inequality in treatment access is a pressing issue in most healthcare systems across many medical disciplines. In mental healthcare, reduced treatment access for minorities is ubiquitous but remedies are sparse. Here we demonstrate that digital tools can reduce the accessibility gap by addressing several key barriers. In a multisite observational study of 129,400 patients within England's NHS services, we evaluated the impact of a personalized artificial intelligence-enabled self-referral chatbot on patient referral volume and diversity in ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. We found that services that used this digital solution identified substantially increased referrals (15% increase versus 6% increase in control services). Critically, this increase was particularly pronounced in minorities, such as nonbinary (179% increase) and ethnic minority individuals (29% increase). Using natural language processing to analyze qualitative feedback from 42,332 individuals, we found that the chatbot's human-free nature and the patients' self-realization of their need for treatment were potential drivers for the observed improvement in the diversity of access. This provides strong evidence that digital tools may help overcome the pervasive inequality in mental healthcare.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Ethnicity* / psychology
  • Female
  • Health Services Accessibility
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Health
  • Minority Groups* / psychology
  • Referral and Consultation