One group was prescribed a six week course of Sleepio, while a control group was given standard advice about how to tackle sleeping problems – such as having a regular bedtime routine and avoiding alcohol.The new programme is funded by a grant from the UK’s Innovation Agency to Oxford Academic Health Science Network (AHSN), part of the NHS. The app costs £200 a year for private subscribers.Dr Michael Mulholland, Buckinghamshire GP and clinical lead for the Oxford AHSN roll out said: “In my role as a GP I see the impact of insomnia on people’s’ lives everyday. “Sleepio offers a real opportunity to transform lives for the better and to reduce reliance on sleeping tablets. This collaboration will explore the potential of digital innovations to improve people’s lives. ” Around one in five adults are estimated to suffer from chronic sleeplessness at some stage of their lives – and around half of those end up sleep-deprived as a result.Treatment is dominated by medication, with 12 million prescriptions for insomnia written last year, but such pills can have unpleasant or harmful side-effects. The NHS is to offer free therapy via smartphones to millions of insomniacs.Under the programme being piloted across the South East, patients will be able to download an app which has been dubbed “a digital sleeping pill”.The strategy is the first NHS roll-out of “direct access” digital medicine – meaning that the health service is funding the app which anyone living in the area can download.The approach uses cognitive behavioural therapy techniques and sleep tracking to help those with persistant insomnia find their best sleeping patterns, and to overcome the “racing mind” that can prevent a good night’s sleep.It comes as research led by Oxford University found that almost three quarters of those following the programme saw an improvement in their well-being, largely a result of reduced insomnia.The study of 1,700 adults, mostly female, with an average age of 40, found than on average, “sleep-related quality of life” was boosted by almost a fifth, six months after starting the six-week programme.The research, published in JAMA Psychiatry, found those following the programme saw a fall in depression, anxiety, and fatigue symptoms, as well as seeing a productivity boost at work.The Sleepio app, which can be accessed via smartphone or web, will be offered in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire this month before being rolled out across other parts of the South East next year. The one-year study involved 1,700 adults with sleeping problems, 78 per cent of whom were female. Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily Front Page newsletter and new audio briefings. But GPs are increasingly being encouraged to recommend psychological approaches, including online therapies.Study lead author Colin Espie, Oxford University Professor of Sleep Medicine, said the research showed that online therapy – which involves sleep tracking, weekly advice sessions and techniques to calm the mind – is an effective treatment for insomnia.“Sleep ranks with air, water and food as one of the essentials of life, yet 10 per cent to 12 per cent of the population don’t get enough of it due to insomnia,” said Prof Espie.“Furthermore, most people who seek help with insomnia do so because of its negative impact on their daytime quality of life.Our study suggests that this new form of ‘digital medicine’ could be a powerful way to help millions of people not just sleep better, but achieve better mental and physical well-being as a result,” said Prof Espie, who is chief medical officer of the company Big Health, which makes Sleepio.