It’s A Myth That The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Service Pays for Itself

IAPT has flourished over the last decade by proclaiming that it pays for itself [see Layard and Clark’s book Thrive  (2014)]. It has been music to the ears of politicians, NHS England and Clinical Commissioning Groups  but none, including the National Audit Office, has bothered to question it. Despite the £1bn price tag this year, see footnote 1. Anyone with the temerity to raise doubts, risks being accused of lacking a commitment to mental health, a pre-requisite of being considered progressive, whatever one’s political hue. 

 

When will the funding and professional bodies such as the British Psychological Society (BPS) and British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy (BABCP) see that the ‘Emperor Has No Clothes’? IAPT claims the service pays for itself by getting people off unemployment benefit (16.8% of IAPT clients) Davis et al (2020) http://dx.doi.org/10.1136  and/or long term sick or disabled benefit (6.9% of IAPT clients).   It is therefore a change in the employment status of minority of IAPT clients that may justify the belief that the service pays for itself. But further elaboration of this population shows that the proportion of clients who could make an economic difference is smaller still. Further when the psychological mechanism by which a change of occupational status may operate is considered, it is improbable that the service pays for itself.  

 IAPT could in principle get 20-25% of clients off benefits. Assuming the target clientele this year is 20%, i.e 0.3 million people, how would the service pay for itself?  Well 40% of IAPT clients do not attend their 1st treatment appointment, so only 0.18 million will be exposed to an IAPT treatment therapist. Of these 42% attend just one treatment appointment, thus 0.1044 million have exposure  to IAPTs treatments and are in the categories of unemployed or long term sick, and potentially might have their employment status changed by the Service i.e 104,440. Those undergoing IAPT treatment ( defined by the Service as attending 2 or more treatment sessions) have an average of 8 treatment sessions in 2018-2019 Saunders et al (2020) https://doi.org/10.1017/S1754470X20000173 but the unemployed and those on long term sickness benefit are less likely to attend a treatment session, Davis et al (2020)http://dx.doi.org/10.1136, as are those who have been referred previously. Thus one might expect this 104,440 to attend a mean of 6 sessions and treatment typically spans 12 weeks according to Saunders et al (2020) https://doi.org/10.1017/S1754470X20000173 . But the population who may return to employment is smaller still because of the following considerations:

  1. There will be a sub-population of the ‘unemployed’ whose unemployment is  related to a work related negative life event, e.g now being physically unable to do the manual work they were employed to do or maltreatment at work. It is difficult to see how 6 sessions of psychological therapy  delivered over 12 weeks would change the diagnostic status of this sub population. There is absence of evidence that such a dosage of psychological therapy can change the employment status of this sub-population. If the sub-population of clients for whom work has been an iatrogenic factor in their debility, are excluded from the analysis, then the population that IAPT’s ministrations could conceivably address is much less than 100,000.
  2.  There will be a further ‘sub-population’ of the unemployed for whom work within their training is simply not available e.g a redundant fisherman. IAPT does not have the resources to conjure up new opportunities, albeit it might direct a client towards re-training.  

Thus the range of action of IAPT with regards to employment status is very limited and even more so when one considers by what mechanism could the typical 6 sessions change employment status over the 12 week span? To return a person to occupational functioning means addressing three key areas a) persistence – the ability to persist with a task b) pace – the ability to complete a task in a timely manner and c) adaptation – the ability to handle the inevitable hassles of the workplace. There is no evidence that IAPT specifically targets these difficulties or has provided training in tackling them. Neither has it been demonstrated that 6 sessions of psychological therapy can resolve such difficulties in 12 weeks and even less evidence as to whether such treatment is enduring.

IAPT lacks the potency to make a real world difference to the unemployed and those on long term sick. Layard and Clark (2014) muddy the distinction between the power of evidence-based psychological therapies and the power of their offspring, IAPT. It can be objected that IAPT pays for itself by increasing the productivity of those already employed, rather than by changing occupational status. But there is no evidence that it does so anymore than the pre-IAPT counselling services.

IAPT’s claim that it changes the employment status of its’ clients is akin to a Dickensian Government’s claim that Workhouses resolve employment issues.

Footnote and reference

 

  1. According to The IAPT Manual 2021 the target for 2021 is 1.5 million clients at a cost of £680 per client [data from Clark (2018) https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-050817-084833] making the anticipated cost of the service this year, £1.02 billion.
  2. Layard, R and Clark, D.M ( 2014) Thrive: The Power of Evidenced-Based Psychological Therapies Penguin Limited

Dr Mike Scott

 

Notice Served On IAPT’s Claim

of a 50% recovery rate. The Editors of Lancet Psychiatry https://doi.org/10.1016/ S2215-0366(21)00123-1 have challenged researchers to demonstrate that an acclaimed intervention makes a difference that service users would recognise. Thus making the consumer of mental health services centre stage rather than a change in score on a test. In addition researchers are asked to justify their primary outcome measure. In interpreting test results the Editors insist that  author’s must clarify what a change of X would mean to a service user as opposed to a change of Y. A recently published paper in the Journal, using IAPT data, https://doi.org/10.1016/ S2215-0366(21)00083-3 would probably not have been published, if it had not been accepted just before the new guidance was implemented. If other Journal editors follow suit, IAPT’s wings will have been clipped over the claims of IAPT and its’ fellow travellers, such as the British Psychological Society (BPS) and the British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies (BABCP).  There has been a dereliction of duty by BPS and BABCP.

 

In this connection I have had the following correspondence with the Lancet Psychiatry  Editors:

My letter

When A Difference Makes No Difference

In June this year the Lancet published guidance [Boyce et al (2021)] for mental health researchers to ensure that the primary outcome measure employed in a study needs to be meaningful. Researchers were asked to a) justify their choice of an outcome measure and b) specify what a change of X or Y on a measure would mean for a service user. Contemporaneously, Lancet Psychiatry published a study by Barkham et al (2021) that made no attempt to address the Editor’s expressed concerns.

Barkham et al (2021) chose to adopt the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) primary outcome measures the PHQ-9 [Kroenke et al (2001)] and GAD-7 [Spitzer et al (2006)], without any discussion. There is no comment that these are self-report measures, subject to demand characteristics and that changes are impossible to interpret without comparison to an active placebo treatment.

The Barkham et al (2021) study involved comparison of person-centred counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy (cbt) in a high intensity therapy service delivered by IAPT. Curiously patients were screened for the study using the Clinician Interview Schedule Revised but neither this nor any standardised diagnostic interview was used as an outcome measure. Why such apparent blindness? The answer is apparent reading the declaration of conflicts of interest, the authors are either devotees of person-centred counselling or have links with IAPT. Their take home message is that person centred counselling might be better than CBT for depressed patients. But there is no attempt to address the question of what proportion of patients lost their diagnosis status and for how long, as determined by an independent blind clinical assessment using a standardised interview. Service-users interests are ill-served by this type of study which additionally ignored data that suggest the recovery rate in IAPT is just 10% [Scott (2018)].

References

Barkham, M., Saxon, D., Hardy, G. E., Bradburn, M., Galloway, D., Wickramasekera, N., Keetharuth, A. D., Bower, P., King, M., Elliott, R., Gabriel, L., Kellett, S., Shaw, S., Wilkinson, T., Connell, J., Harrison, P., Ardern, K., Bishop-Edwards, L., Ashley, K., Ohlsen, S., … Brazier, J. E. (2021). Person-centred experiential therapy versus cognitive behavioural therapy delivered in the English Improving Access to Psychological Therapies service for the treatment of moderate or severe depression (PRaCTICED): a pragmatic, randomised, non-inferiority trial. The lancet. Psychiatry, 8(6), 487–499. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(21)00083-3

Boyce, N., Graham, D., & Marsh, J. (2021). Choice of outcome measures in mental health research. The lancet. Psychiatry, 8(6), 455. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(21)00123-1

Kroenke K, Spitzer RL, Williams JB. The PHQ-9: validity of a brief depression severity measure. J Gen Intern Med 2001;16: 606–13.

Scott M. J. (2018). Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) – The Need for Radical Reform. Journal of health psychology, 23(9), 1136–1147. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318755264

Spitzer RL, Kroenke K, Williams JB, Löwe B. A brief measure for assessing generalized anxiety disorder: the GAD-7. Arch Intern Med 2006; 166: 1092–97.

 

August 13th 2021

 

Thank you for your letter to The Lancet Psychiatry. We are pleased to see that our initiative re primary outcome reporting has been noticed.  We are applying this now but did not apply it retrospectively to papers accepted before publication. The Barkham et al paper was published online on 14 May, six weeks after the Comment, but was accepted and edited before our new policy was in place. 

For Correspondence, our information for authors states: Letters written in response to previous content published in The Lancet Psychiatry must reach us within 4 weeks of publication of the original item.  We do extend this to after the original item has been published in an issue but I’m afraid that your letter is still outside the window for the Barkham et al paper, so we have decided not to publish it.

Although this decision has not been a positive one, I thank you for your interest in the journal.

Yours sincerely,

Joan Marsh

Joan Marsh MA PhD

Deputy Editor

 

Dr Mike Scott

 

On What Basis Are Talking Therapies Out Of Bounds To The Care Quality Commission?

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) has just called the Government to task for blanket Do Not Resuscitates (DNRs) applied at the start of the pandemic. But the CQC is not allowed to investigate the quality of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services for those with mental health difficulties. Could there be a more glaring example of the disparity between physical and mental health services?

 

The IAPT service has had a decade of going under the radar of independent public scrutiny, despite Government expenditure of over £4billion. Strangely the National Audit Office (NAO) has no intention of mounting an audit (see recent post), citing preoccupation with Covid and its’ earlier preoccupations with the collapse of Carrillion and the provision of generic medicines. IAPT is responsible to NHS England but staff at the Department of Health also have key positions in IAPT. NHS England are likely to claim that they are ‘too busy’ to address trivial matters like conflicts of interest, reacting like the NAO. The Government will likewise claim preoccupation to avoid addressing sensitive matters.

The CQC can investigate whether the needs of those in Care Homes are being served and can champion the plight of residents, who is to champion the needs of those with mental health difficulties. Organisations such as Mind often have funding arrangements with IAPT. The  British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies (BABCP) and the British Psychological Society (BPS) regularly give pride of place to IAPT luminaries with rare opportunities for opposing views to be expressed.  The result is a groupthink within these organisations. 

Dr Mike Scott

 

The Department of Health Has Failed To Regulate Routine Mental Health Services

Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services are out of bounds to Care Quality Commission inspection.  In 2016 the National Audit Office (NAO) asked the Department of Health to address this issue and it has done nothing.  The Department sets the agenda and budget for NHS England, who in turn do the same with Clinical Commissioning Groups to determine local provision of services. But NHS England staff are lead players amongst service providers, these conflicts of interest exacerbate the parlous governance of IAPT. There is a need for Parliament to step in and take the Department of Health to task.  

 

Whilst no one doubts the importance of improving access to psychological therapies, it was remiss of the NAO in 2016 to take at face value IAPT’s claim that it had the appropriate monitoring measures in place.  Incredulously the NAO accepted at face value IAPT’s claim that it was achieving a 45% recovery. It is always tempting to look only as far as evidence that confirms your belief. But it is equally important to consider what type of evidence would disconfirm your belief. The NAO has failed to explain why it has not insisted on independent scrutiny of IAPT’s claims. 

The The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme has exercised a confirmatory bias in its’ audit by focussing only on self-report responses on  psychometric tests (the PHQ9 and GAD7). The service has never looked at a categorical end point, such as whether a person lost their diagnostic status as assessed by an independent evaluator using a standardised diagnostic interview.

Organisations, are inherently likely to be self-promoting and will have a particular penchant for operating, not necessarily wholly consciously, with a confirmatory bias. It is for other stakeholders, NHS England, Clinical Commissioning groups, MPs, the media, Charities and professional bodies (BABCP  and BPS) to hold IAPT to account. For the past decade they have all conspicuosly failed to do so. How have IAPT evaded critical scrutiny, despite the taxpayer having paid £4billion for its’ services? Friends in high places is the most likely answer. I have called for an independent public inquiry for years and will continue to do so  but there is likely to be an echo of a deafening silence as the only beneficiary would be the client with mental health problems.  

Dr Mike Scott

Mental Health Sufferers Vote With Their Feet and Government Does Nothing At All

 of those who undergo an initial assessment with the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Service 40% do not go on to have treatment, and about the same proportion (42%) attend only one treatment session, according to a just published study by Davis A, Smith T, Talbot J, et al. Evid Based Ment Health 2020;23:8–14. doi:10.1136/ebmental-2019-300133. These findings echo a study  published last year by Moller et al (2019) https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-019-2235-z, on a smaller sample, which suggested that 29% were non-starters and that the same proportion attended only one treatment session. Further scrutiny of the data reveals that about 3 out of 4 people drop out of treatment once begun. Unsurprisingly the authors’s independent study, of 90 IAPT clients, Scott (2018) revealed that only the tip of the iceberg (9.2%) recovered                 DOI: 10.1177/1359105318755264, raising serious questions about why the Government has spent over £4 billion on the service.

What Has Gone Wrong?

Kline et al (2020) consider that at an assessment by a clinician is supposed to: a) provide a credible rationale for the proposed treatment b)  detail the efficacy of the envisaged treatment and c) ensure that the clients preferences are acknowledged. IAPT’ assessments fail on all counts, taking these in turn:

a. If the problem is ill-defined e.g low mood/stress it is not clear what rationale should be presented. It is doubtful that a 30-45 minute telephone conversation can provide sufficient space to define the primary problem and other problems/disorders that may complicate treatment. Initial assessments  of patients for randomised controlled trials of psychological interventions are typically 90 mins plus, if this is the time deemed necessary to reliably diagnose a patient by a highly trained clinician, how can a much less trained PWP do it in less than half the time? Under time pressure a PWP may consider providing a credible rationale is part of treatment not assessment and in such circumstances it becomes more likely that a client will default. 

b. How often do PWPs present clients with evidence on the efficacy of an intervention? Take for example, computer assisted CBT, does the therapist tell the client that only 7 out of 48 of NHS recommended e-therapies have been subjected to randomised controlled trials, ( see Simmonds-buckley et al J Med Internet Res 2020;22(10):e17049) doi: 10.2196/170490 and even in these a gold standard semi-structured diagnostic interview conducted by a blind assessor was not use to determine diagnostic status post treatment, i.e there was no determination of the proportion of clients who were back to their old self after treatment and for how long. Further the e-therapies had average dropout rates of 31%.  They are not evidence based treatments in the way the NICE recommended high intensity treatments are. But approximately three quarters Of IAPT interventions (73%) are low intensity first, with 4% stepped up to high intensity and 20% in total receiving a high intensity intervention Davis A, Smith T, Talbot J, et al. Evid Based Ment Health 2020;23:8–14. doi:10.1136/ebmental-2019-300133

c. Client’s preferences are a predictor of engagement in treatment, but how often is a client given a choice between a low intensity intervention and a high intensity intervention. If both options are juxtaposed choice is likely skewed by informing the client that the high intensity intervention has a much longer waiting time.

Defining A Dropout

The generally accepted definition of a dropout is attending less than 7 sessions [see Kline et al (2020) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2020.103750], it is held that clients attending below this number will have had a sub-therapeutic dose of treatment and are therefore unlikely to respond]. Applying this metric to IAPT’s dataset is difficult as they only report data for those who complete 2 or more sessions and for which the average number of sessions attended is 6, thus the likely dropout rate from IAPT treatment, as most would understand the term, is about 75%.  But IAPT has developed its’ own definition of a completer as one who attends 2 or more sessions. This strange definition serves only to muddy the waters on its haemorrhaging of clients. It makes no sense to continue to fund IAPT without an independent  government inquiry into its’ modus operandi.

 

An Alternative Way Forward

Such has been the marketing power of IAPT over the last decade, that professional organisations such as the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) and the British Psychological Society (BPS) have sat mesmerised, as the Services fellow travellers have dominated accreditation and training.     In ‘Simply Effective Cognitive Behaviour Therapy’  published in (2009) by Routledge, I detailed a very different way of delivering services, that represents a faithful translation of the CBT treatments delivered in the randomised controlled trials (rcts) for depression and the anxiety disorders. Unfortunately it is IAPT’s fundamentalist translation of the rcts that has held sway and has brooked no debate either in journals or at Conferences.

 

Dr Mike Scott

 

BBC Chooses To Ignore Talking Therapies 10% Recovery Rate

this morning BBC Radio 4 focussed on the problems caused by the Improving Access To Psychological Therapies (IAPT) long waiting lists (half more than 28 days)  but reiterated IAPT’s claim of a 50% recovery rate. But IAPT has only ever marked its’ own homework on recovery rates. I spent hours explaining to Radio 4 reporters that the true recovery rate is more likely 10% as detailed in my paper published in the Journal of Health Psychology last year, but they totally ignored this – shortening waiting time for something, that is most likely to be ineffective approaches pointlessness:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/flvxtq2jyhmn6i1/IAPT%20The%20Need%20for%20Radical%20Reform.pdf?dl=0

billions of £s have been spent on IAPT over the last decade all without any publicly funded independent assessment of outcome, this would never have been permitted in evaluating a drug. NHS England claimed IAPT has exceeded expectations , but can cite no independent evidence. NHS England have failed the public in terms of accountability. There are so many vested interests in IAPT that the great majority of patients are likely to continue to be short changed. The yardstick has to be the proportion of people who get back to their old selves post-treatment, my study of 90 IAPT clients found that only the tip of the iceberg recover. NHS England need to commit to a publicly funded independent assessment of IAPT using real world outcome measures such as loss of diagnostic status for at least 8 weeks.

There is a troubling alliance of powerholders BBC, IAPT, BABCP and BPS that is ignoring the real needs of those with mental health problems.

 

Dr Mike Scott

  

IAPT’s Eventual Implosion

there are no limits to IAPT’s ambitions, making failure inevitable. IAPT’s target in practice is, “whatever the client complains of” and treatment is operationalised as “whatever its’ therapists do”, Both focii are so loose that it cannot fulfill it’s promise, like a totalitarian revolution that runs out of steam.

The IAPT Manual published a year ago leaves both targets and treatment ‘fuzzy’, whilst proclaiming a commitment to NICE Guidelines. A target of ‘client complaints’ makes no distinction between ‘ disorder’ and everyday unhappiness/stresses. Yet the treatments advocated by NICE are quite specific to disorders.

At most IAPT staff ask about some symptoms of a disorder, but without coverage of all the symptoms of a disorder. But they are not taught to ask whether a symptom is present at a clinically significant level, i.e whether it is making a real world difference to a client’s life. Only clinically significant symptoms count in DSM. As a result IAPT client’s are typically treated for disorders they don ‘t have, without any fidelity check on compliance with a protocol.

There is tremendous vested interest, financially, emotionally and intellectually in IAPT continuing as it is, marking its’ own homework with applause from BABCP and the BPS.

Dr Mike Scott

CBT Researchers Have Abandoned Independent Blind Assesment – Beware of Findings

I have been looking in vain for the last time CBT researchers assessed outcome on the basis of independent blind assessment, which was a cornerstone of the initial randomised controlled trials of CBT.  Current CBT research is more about academic clinicians marketing their wares. Journals such as Behaviour Research and Therapy and Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy and organisations such as BABCP and BPS are happily complicit in this. The message is give a subject a self-report measure to complete, it is less costly than expensive highly trained independent interviewers blinded to treatment, forget about the demand characteristics of a self-report measure ( a wish to please those who have provided a service) and don’t worry if the measure does not accurately reflect the construct under question. My psychiatric colleagues might be forgiven for saying that at least the trials of antidepressants have usually been double blinded, if since the millennium CBT studies have rarely managed to be single blinded, is it time the CBT-centric era ended? But purveyors of other psychotherapies have even more rarely bought into the importance of independent blind assessment.

The overall impact of inattention to independent blind assessment is that the case for pushing CBT is actually not as powerful as the prime movers in the field would have us believe, this may actually be a relief to struggling practitioners. For example Zhu et al (2014) [Shangai Arch Psychiatry, 26, 319-331 examined 12 randomised controlled trials of CBT for generalised anxiety disorder in which there was supposedly independent blind assessment  but in 6 of the 12 studies the main outcome measure was based on the results of a self-reported scale completed by the client (i.e outcome was not actually assessed by the blinded assessor) and concluded that the quality of the evidence supporting the conclusion that CBT was effective for GAD was poor. A meta-analysis of outcome studies  conducted by Cuijpers (2016) World Psychiatry, 15, 245-258 found that using criteria of the Cochrane risk of bias tool only 17% (24 of 144) rct’s of CBT for anxiety and depressive disorders were of high quality. Cuijper et al concluded that CBT ‘is probably effective in the treatment of MDD, GAD, PAD and SAD; that the effects are large when the control condition is waiting list, but small to moderate when it is care-as-usual or pill placebo; and that, because of the small number of high-quality trials, these effects are still
uncertain and should be considered with caution’. Only half the studies had blind assessors and it is not clear whether they were the determinants of outcome or a client completed self-report measure, the study needs further analysis. My impression is that the weakest of studies are those examining guided self-help, computer assisted CBT, (the step 2 interventions in IAPT) yet these interventions are most commonly offered.

Dr Mike Scott

National Audit Office IAPT Investigation, Whistleblowers

Below is the National Audit Office’s request for evidence re: IAPT, I note they have a whistleblower’s policy. It may be possible to ask for anonymity. I would hope that BABCP and BPS would make a submission to the National Audit Office, but to my knowledge this is not on the agenda of either, why not?

Investigation: Improving Access to

Psychological Therapies performance data

The ‘Improving Access to Psychological Therapies’ (IAPT) programme increases access to

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence approved treatment for depression and

anxiety disorders. In October 2014, the Department of Health and NHS England

jointly published Achieving Better Access to Mental Health Services by 2020. This set new

standards for the time people should wait for mental health treatment and the care they should

be able to access. In the case of IAPT services, the standards are that 75% of people referred

should be treated within six weeks, and 95% within 18 weeks of referral, and that 50% of

those who complete treatment will recover. NHS Digital publishes monthly statistics

that report performance against these standards. This investigation will establish the facts

around how the national statistics are prepared.

If you would like to provide evidence for our study please email the study team on

enquiries@nao.gsi.gov.uk, putting the study title in the subject line. The team will consider the

evidence you provide; however, please note that due to the volume of information we receive we

may not respond to you directly. If you need to raise a concern please use our contact form.