Decrypting the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Code

IAPT communications have an agenda, their focus is on persuading their source of revenue, local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) to expand funding, to cover staffing costs of £0.5billion by 2024.  To achieve this goal it uses language that is familiar to the GPs that comprise CCGs, ‘NICE compliant’, ‘recovery’ and claiming a comparability of outcome to those in randomised controlled trials. But CCG’s are themselves under orders from NHS England, who have never critically appraised IAPT’s claims.

The secret to breaking the IAPT Code, is strangely its’ use of the ICD-10 code (the World Health Organisation’s labelling system for all disorders). The recent IAPT Manual (August 2021) https://www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/the-iapt-manual-v5.pdf recommends that IAPT clinicians give at least one code to each client, to characterise their debility. But nowhere in the Manual does it suggest that IAPT clinicians make a diagnosis. An ICD-10 code is only as reliable as the diagnosis made. The Manual claims that NICE Guidelines are based on ICD-10 codes and that IAPT is therefore NICE compliant.  However the treatments recommended by NICE are all diagnosis specific, it follows that if there is no diagnosis there can be no fidelity to a NICE protocol. A key part of IAPT’s code is to gloss over that IAPT’s interventions are based, not on diagnosis but on ‘problem descriptors’. The silent assumptions are that:

a) there would be reliable agreement (reliability) between clinicians about what would constitute a clients main problem and

b) there is a body of evidence that a problem descriptor acts as a key to unlock the door to a specific protocol. Further that the specific protocol has been demonstrated to confer an added value, over and above an active placebo, for the chosen problem descriptor. There is an assumption of clinical utility.

But there is no empirical evidence for either a) the reliability or b) the clinical utility. 

IAPT operates its’ own coding device, akin to the Enigma machine used by the Germans in World War 2, and it has as a result ill-served millions. NHS England and CCG’s have totally failed to recognise its’ operation, believing instead IAPT’s public broadcasts e.g a 50% recovery rate, when independent assessment indicates a 10% recovery rate Scott (2018) https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318755264.

Dr Mike Scott

IAPT’s Hidden Agenda

we can only deal with one problem, because that fits into the 6 sessions of therapy that we start with’, but the Improving Access to Psychological Treatments (IAPT) service makes no  public declaration of this.  Clients want a holistic approach in which all their problems are catered for. It is magical thinking to believe that a) a mental health problem can be resolved in 6 sessions b) the benefits gained from addressing the chosen mental health problem will, by a process of osmosis, resolve the other mental health problems. This represents delusional Organisational thinking, unfortunately I think it would take a lot more than 6 sessions to treat!

Recently I saw Ms X and she related to me her two sojourns through IAPT. I also had access to the IAPT correspondence, for confidentiality reasons, some of the details have been changed:

Five years a ago, Ms X found out that she had been adopted, she felt that she had never fitted in with her adoptive family, though they were kind. She felt that she had always been a ‘worrier’, her adoptive mum had chronic health problems and shortly after learning of her adoption she became concerned over any blemish on her skin. Ms X saw her GP and she advised self-referral to IAPT. She had a telephone assessment with a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner and was advised that her PHQ-9 score was normal and her GAD-7 score at ‘caseness’. But no diagnosis was given. A letter from IAPT indicated that she ‘agreed to attend a worry management course’ but she said only a group programme was on offer. Ms X dropped out after attending one group session. Her GP had recorded that the treatment had not helped. I assessed her using a standardised diagnostic interview and it was clear that she had been suffering from illness anxiety disorder and general anxiety disorder (GAD) at the time of seeking help form IAPT and her diagnostic status was unchanged by IAPT’s ministrations.

Two years later she was at work, when her hair got caught in machinery at work causing a scalp injury. However the injury was under the hairline and not visible, but she could feel an indentation on her scalp. She developed a phobia about being around machinery leading to poor attendance at work and possible disciplinary action. The accident re-ignited her illness anxiety disorder that had been in remission for about 6 months. I noted that she continued to meet diagnostic criteria for GAD. Her GP advised self-referral to IAPT and she had a telephone assessment with a Trainee Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner, both PHQ-9 and GAD-7 scores were at ‘caseness’.  No diagnosis was given. Ms X was told that they could only treat one of her problems and she chose her health anxiety concerns. She was placed on a 6 week waiting list for the Silver Cloud computerised CBT. During, the course of her cCBT she had 4 interactions with IAPT staff responsible for the smooth functioning of the Silver Cloud programme. They said that she was ‘depressed and anxious’ but gave no diagnosis. During treatment her specific phobia was not addressed at all. The diagnostic interview that I conducted revealed comorbid illness anxiety disorder and GAD but she was not depressed. She understood that there was to be a review of her progress at the end of cCBT to see what if any further help might be appropriate. This never happened. The Silver Cloud programme had no impact on her diagnostic status. IAPT’s treatment was ‘in the Clouds’.

This case raises important questions:

  1. Why was a minimalist intervention repeated when the first such intervention had not worked?
  2. Why are the least well-trained clinicians given the power to direct treatment?
  3. Why are the least well-trained clinicians given the power to re-direct treatment?
  4. Why is IAPT allowed to behave in a way that would not be tolerated in physical care vis a vis a focus on just one problem and continued management by the most junior clinician when treatment fails?
  5. Where is the publicly funded independent audit of IAPT?

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case, my own review of 90 cases suggests just a 10% recovery rate Scott (2018) https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318755264) . There has been a dereliction of duty by NHS England, Clinical Commissioning Groups and the National Audit Office. The British Psychological Society has rubber stamped whatever IAPT has proposed. The British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy have become an IAPT mouthpiece, its’ journal CBT Today intolerant of dissent.

 

Dr Mike Scott

 

 

NICE Mental Health Guidance Fails To Address Real World Cost Effectiveness

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Care Excellence (NICE) rightly considers the results of randomised controlled trials in advocating particular psychological therapies, but has not assessed whether, as implemented, they represent an added value compared to previously available therapies. Consider a new drug that is of proven efficacy in randomised controlled trials, NICE would understandably look positively at it, but before recommending it would want to know about side effects and the proportion of people discontinuing use. However NICE seems blissfully unaware that for the psychological treatments that they recommend, when delivered in routine practice, only one half of people tolerate more than one treatment session [Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Annual report 2019-2020 https://files.digital.nhs.uk/B8/F973E1/psych-ther-2019-20-ann-rep.pdf,.  But they do know that there is no independent evidence of greater remission since the inception of IAPT – their silence on this point is deafening. 

 

The NICEimpact mental health document (2019) asserts, p4 ‘The IAPT programme offers NICE-recommended treatments’  for common mental health disorders in adults. No it does not and what is worse still is that NICE have never bothered to check. NICE has been simply the voice of the power holders in mental health and not the consumers.

The usual metric employed by NICE is Quality Adjusted Life Years (QUALY), as a general rule of thumb new interventions are recommended if the cost of one QUALY does not exceed £20,000. But a QUALY can only be assessed against the benchmark of the previous standard drug/service i.e there is a presumption that this is reliably known. However NICE has operated without this data, as such its recommendations on mental health and in particular on depression and the anxiety disorders are blind. Yet organisations such as IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies)   establish their legitimacy to paymasters (NHS England and Clinical Commissioning Groups) by claiming the NICE seal of approval.  NHS England and CCG’s prefer to nod to this ‘seal’ rather to enquire about IAPT’s claims, much less to set up an independent body to address the veracity of claims. This is not too surprising as there is a semi-permeable membrane between the Department of Health and service providers. Conflicts of interest have not been addressed. 

 

Determining a QUALY with regards to mental health is not easy, but one QUALY could reasonably be interpreted as the cost of achieving the absence  of meeting diagnostic criteria for a recognised psychiatric disorder for a year for a client, following say an IAPT intervention, this would be compared with the typical cost of achieving this goal with the same type of client in pre IAPT services. But no follow up of IAPT clients has been conducted that independently tracks diagnostic status. NICE is saying more than it knows, but at whose behest?

Dr Mike Scott

Who Is Monitoring The Quality of Primary Care Mental Health Services?

Nobody, Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) confine themselves to operational matters, number of patients seen, waiting lists.  The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service has been allowed to self-monitor since its’ inception in 2008.  The National Audit Office abandoned its’ investigation of IAPT because of competing priorities citing the Carillion debacle amongst others in June 2018. Who is listening to the voice of the recipients of the mental health services?  

The mantra appears to be to get everyone to talk about mental health, especially celebrities, get everyone involved in mental health, teachers etc, secure more funding for anything with a mental health flavour on the basis that ‘it must be good’. But frenetic activity does not equal making a real world difference, achieving this has to be carefully monitored.

It goes without saying that we all need a more caring society nationally, for example assisting those who have been self-isolating for over a year to gradually venture out.  From an international perspective we should be giving a £1bn a year to fund the provision of vaccines in poorer countries. The need for compassion is never redundant.  But political correctness about mental health can obscure fully engaging with those in most need. 

Dr Mike Scott

IAPT’s Processes Contribute Towards Death or Injury

transcripts of tape recordings of client’s first contacts with the, UK Government funded, Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service, analysed by Drew et al (2021) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2021.113818 reveal not only steadily increasing access,  but a steadfast refusal to let clients tell the story behind their distress. The double message is ‘come to us, but we don’t want to listen to your troubles’

To quote Drew et als’ (2021) study of telephone-guided low intensity IAPT communications:

We show the ways in which the lack of flexibility in adhering to a system-driven structure can displace, defer or disrupt the emergence of the patient’s story, thereby compromising the personalisation and responsiveness of the service’

and 

‘routine assessment measure questionnaires  prioritised interactionally, thereby compromising                        patient-centredness in these sessions’

Drew et al (2021) give an example of this surrounding risk assessment:

PWP: So just with regards to question nine, okay so we have a duty of care to yourself or others? .hhh.erm (.) > are we okay just to< have a bit of a chat around.hh what those thoughts might be for you at the moment. ‘Cos you’ve scored a one there haven’t you’ Pause 3 secs
 
PWP: Are you having current thoughts of wanting to hurt yourself or end your life? Pause 3.5 secs
 
Pat: No, may. hh Pause for 3.5 secs
 
Pat: It’s – It’s just feels like a really weird (.) week this week because –
(18 lines omitted in which the patient talks about the pressure they are under; only minimal responses and attempts to close from PWP)
 
Pat: I still feel like I – I’m not doing anything and not accompanying anything tearful/tremulous
 
PWP: Mm, mm, okay? .huh
 
Pat: MHHHH HHH [ and it’s tearful/tremulous]
 
PWP: Are you having any thoughts of wanting to be better off dead or off wanting to better off dead or hurting yourself
 
Dangerously The PWP is all at sea  – a disaster waiting to happen, there will be a death. The above exchange shows
 
the therapist unable to move beyond repeating question 9 on the PHQ9, like a broken record, without any reliable
 
exploration of suicide risk. But then the IAPT Manual provides no guidance in this respect, baldly stating risk
 
assessment is part of good assessment.
 
In the exchange above the PWP ignores the client’s story. Assessment and treatment are necessarily built on sand 
 
if the client’s narrative is not first distilled.  Making IAPT’s claim of a 50% recovery rate  beyond belief. [The average
 
session was 44mins for assessment and 33 mins for first treatment]. 

It is bad enough when a friend or relative will not listen to your troubles, but when a Government Agency does it routinely, that is unconscionable. Drew et al (2021) draw attention to the ubiquity of the problem which suggests that it is systemic. However Drew et al (2021) content themselves with recommending that IAPT’s assessors need to ask more open-ended questions at the start of their interviews. The authors claim no conflict of interest, but many of the authors have had previous privileged access to IAPT data, research data may not be so forthcoming if they take a more critical view of IAPT. In this respect they do not question IAPT’s recovery rate or cite data which may disconfirm it Scott (2018) https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318755264.

 

Dr Mike Scott

IAPT – Suicidal and Given Online CBT

 I recently came across a former IAPT client that the Organisation’s own documentation described as considering two different means of suicide. He had been bullied at school and engaged in a lot of self-harm. This depressed young man was given computer assisted CBT by IAPT and dropped out after 4 sessions. He told me that it did not teach him anything he did not already know. IAPT’s decision making is based on exigencies rather than clinical need.

Oftentimes a client with thoughts that they would be ‘better off dead’ are passed back to their GP. The GP is then obliged to contact the patient to discover that the ‘suicidal thoughts’ are most often passive and without any active intent or planning. In such instances IAPT had not taken the time to discover whether there was any active planning of suicide. The reaction of the Organisation is that ‘we do not want egg on our face’, so bounce it back to the GP. Unfortunately GP’s don’t complain to their Clinical Commissioning Groups about IAPT, content that they get a break from these ‘non-medical’ cases whilst they are being seen by IAPT, albeit that it is a revolving door.

Dr Mike Scott

Mental Health Patients and GPs Caught In IAPT’s Revolving Door

30% of GP referrals to the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service do not attend, and of those who attend for treatment, 40% do so for only one session [Pulse November 2nd 2018 Home Analysis NHS structures Revealed: How patients referred to mental health services end up back with their GP]. The GP is left to cope with this haemorrhaging , with no input from Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) to rectify matters.  The CCGs are complicit in IAPT ‘cherry picking’ clients, refusing clients under another service, such as substance misuse or an eating disorder.  Further the CCG’s do not bat an eye when IAPT claims to have met its’ target of a 50% recovery rate.  They miss the point that there has been no publicly funded  independent audit of IAPT.  They are blissfully ignorant that using an independently administered standardised semi-structured interview (SCID) only the tip of the iceberg (9.2%) recover Scott (2018) https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318755264.

Evidence based practice involves an integration of best research evidence, clinician expertise and patient’s preferences [ NHS England document ‘Finding the Evidence’ November (2013)].

There are no randomised controlled trials, using a blind evaluator, of IAPT’s modal, low intensity treatment.  Making  the ‘best research evidence’ leg unstable.  GPS do not audit the effect of IAPT on their patients and so their clinical expertise in dealing with these patients is questionable.  Shared decision making is an integral part of  eliciting patient preferences. But in IAPT clients are usually discharged when they have had the pre-determined number of sessions and/or when their score on a self-report measure falls below a certain cut-off.  There is no credible elicitation of client’s preferences. All legs of the evidence based practice stool have fault lines, and it collapses under IAPT’s weight. The Agency is a prime exemple of failed evidence based practice.

Dr Mike Scott

IAPT’s Black Hole – Accountability

I recently asked the National Audit Office to restart it’s investigation into IAPT. I am expecting their reply in the next week or two. There has been no independent scrutiny of IAPT. They have been answerable only to Clinical Commissioning Groups, which have consisted largely of GPs and allowed IAPT to mark its’ own homework.

But the accountability gap also extends downwards, where is the evidence that front line staff or clients have been consulted or involved in decision making?  Most recently IAPT has offered webinars, for its staff on helping those with long term COVID.   There is a tacit assumption that this will be within the expertise of IAPT therapists just as helping those with long term physical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. But the IAPT staff working with LTCs were never consulted, before this new foray. Client’s with LTCs were never asked whether they were back to their old selves (or best functioning) before this proposed further extension of IAPT’s empire.  

In the forthcoming issue of the British Journal of Clinical Psychology I have challenged IAPT’s account of its ‘performance’ see ‘Ensuring IAPT Does What It Says On The Tin’ https://doi.org/10.1111/bjc.12264. There is a reply in rebuttal see ‘The costs and benefits of practice-based evidence: correcting some misunderstandings about the 10-year meta-analysis of IAPT studies’ https://doi.org/10.1111/bjc.12268 that reveals a breathtaking level of conflict of interests. IAPT and its’ fellow travellers should be held to account. But importantly they also need to account to their therapists and clients. [ The original IAPT paper is available at https://doi.org/10.1111/bjc.12259]

 

Dr Mike Scott

IAPT’s Hall of Mirrors Feedback

negates improved practice. The Organisation’s usage of the Patient Experience Questionnaire (PEQ) violates all the key requirements for eliciting feedback, which has to involve:

a) a response to questions that have an unambiguous real world meaning e.g ‘are you back to your old self  since treatment? i.e questions have to have validity

b) drawing upon a consecutive series of clients

c) completion anonymously and not in the presence of the therapist

d) a representative sample.

IAPT makes a token gesture of soliciting feedback using the Patients Experience questionnaire,  but its’ modus operandi is such that it cannot furnish a body of evidence that would demonstrate that it is not a ‘world beater’. In effect it has operated with a confirmatory bias only seeking information that would confirm its’ prior belief.

In 2016-2017, of 219 Clinical Commissioning Groups in England, 55 (25%) produced no PEQ data at all, i.e that a quarter of CCGs were funding a service in the absence of any evidence that the IAPT Service was eliciting feedback. In 2017-2018 of the 554,709 clients who completed a course of treatment  only 22% Moller et al (2019) https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-019-2235-z completed the treatment questions on the PEQ.

There is no evidence that IAPT took active steps to ensure completion by consecutive cases or that therapists were blind to the results of the PEQ. The questions on the PEQ are themselves of doubtful validity e.g ‘how satisfied are you with your assessment’, this  question presupposes that the client has the knowledge base as to what constitutes a good assessment, imagine  if asked this question as a possible COVID patient most of us would believe ‘it is outside my expertise to judge the matter’. The question on the PEQ ‘on reflection, did you get the help that mattered to you’ is ambiguous, is it asking about the emotional significance of the encounter with the therapist, for example did they really listen/seem to care or about whether as a result of treatment you had returned to normal functioning.

Government and Clinical Commissioning Groups have turned a blind eye to IAPT’s failure to systematically elicit feedback from clients. At a cost of £4billion over the last decade and an incalcu cost to mental health. sufferers.

Dr Mike Scott

 

 

Outcome In Talking Therapies – Calling a Spade a Spade

when did you last hear of a therapist asking a client ‘do those close to you think you are back to your old self now?’, ‘do you think you are back to your old self? ‘how long do you feel that you have been back to your normal?  Yet these questions reflect the implicit dominant concerns of clients. It is at a minimum, neglect not to ask such questions and we may come to see this failure at some future point as abuse.

But Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) therapists typically concentrate on whether there has been an improvement of 6 points on the PHQ9, with no attention to how long the improvement has persisted and they are then ejected from treatment.  Client’s are not asked whether the said change on the psychometric test constitutes a minimally clinically significant improvement in their condition.  Nor is there any evidence that the chosen psychometric test is pertinent to the primary disorder for which they were seeking treatment. The typically administered PHQ9 and GAD7 are highly correlated and may not even represent separate constructs i.e depression and generalised anxiety, and by themselves are dubious vectors for directing treatment. 

It is a sleight of hand to claim that the 6 point improvement on the PHQ9 or indeed scoring below 10 at post treatment say anything meaningful about the client’s real world if the test is used outside the context of a standardised diagnostic interview that identified depression as the primary disorder. Using the psychometric tests out of such contexts has more to do with income than outcome. For the unwary such changes seem ‘significant’ but the same change is observed in clients followed up without psychological therapy [see Gilbody (2015)]. Unfortunately it has proven all to easy to dupe Public Health England and Clinical Commissioning Groups. At present it seems it is too embarrassing for them to admit they have allowed themselves to be hoodwinked for years.

 

Dr Mike Scott