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) 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)

Dr Mike Scott

Improving Access to Psychological Therapists (IAPT) or Care Assistants?

The staffing costs of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Programme is set to rise to £0.5 billion per year, but the National Audit Office (NAO) has failed to determine whether it is value for money. The average Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) will need to increase IAPT staffing by 60-75% to meet the 2024 NHS Access Target ,according to the updated IAPT Manual (August 2021). Currently the service employs 8000 staff, another 3,800-6,000 are ‘needed’, taking the total to between 11,800 and 14,000 in the next 3 years.  Assuming a staffing cost of £35K per employee per year and the employment of 13,000 IAPT therapists, annual staff costs will be £455 million a year i.e approximately £0.5 billion per year.  But the true cost will be even greater when overheads  such as rent, phone lines are included. Extrapolating backwards, over £5billion will have been spent on IAPT staff since its inception without independent audit and no intention of NAO audit.

But the pandemic has highlighted the shortage and poor pay of Care Assistants. Drew et al (2021) sampled IAPT therapist-client interactions and noted a steadfast refusal to let clients tell the story behind their distress. A member of the public listening to these exchanges might contrast them with those of a Care Assistant making visits to a terminally ill patient so they can die at home with their family. The public would I think see the Care Assistant’s work as being more valuable and puzzled that the IAPT worker is paid twice as much.

There is a move to have health and social care under one umbrella, perhaps the NAO might explain why there should not be better pay for the Care Assistants and an increase in numbers at the expense of expansion of IAPT services. I came across this advert for Care Assistants in my area:

a much better investment than Talk Liverpool with a 10% recovery rate, Scott (2018) ‘IAPT- The Need for Radical Reform’

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) . 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,.  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

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) 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’


‘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)


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 IAPT Fiasco – A Failure of Governance Over Talking Therapies

no one is available to answer, why over £4billion has been spent on the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service without independent evaluation. There should be a call to action when the best available evidence indicates that only the tip of the iceberg of IAPT client’s recover Which Government Minister is responsible? Does responsibility lie with Public Health England or NHS England? Are Clinical Commissiong Groups (CCG’s) simply acting under orders?

It is not good enough for the architects of the IAPT service to blandly assert it is a ‘world beater’.  There is no transparency with regards to decision making and implementation in IAPT. In the 3 years of cbtwatch no public powerholder has deigned to answer the concerns raised.  Media pressure did however evoke a response by IAPT’s, public advocates, Professors Clark and Salkovskis, who are hardly disinterested commentators, albeit that they are persuaders par excellence. Ministers, Public Health England and NHS England have maintained a deafening silence.

Interestingly the failure in transparency over IAPT resembles that of the handling of the pandemic. It is it seems impossible to discover who postponed testing.  There has been a parallel failure, over the last decade to publicly and independently test out recovery rates in IAPT.  My own findings are that the tip of the iceberg of service users get back to their usual selves.

We seem destined to go from one fiasco to another, but all it needs to avoid this scenario is honesty and care, it is fundamentally an ethical matter. This could start by taking the time to listen to what IAPT client’s are saying and to IAPT front line workers.

Dr Mike Scott


Declining IAPT – Clients Reject The Service

Rejection of the Improving Access to Psychological Treatments (IAPT) service continues to be the norm. Yet it has been funded to the tune of £4 billion without any independent demonstration that it has better recovery rates than its’ predecessors.

Nearly a decade ago, Richards and Borglin examined the pathway of over 7000 Improving access to Psychological Treatments (IAPT) clients – of those referred, 27.3% did not materialise for an assessment. Of those assessed 26.8% did not go further. Of those attending treatment 29.5% completed only one session. Of those initially referred  the rate of non completion of treatment was 62.5%. [Were ‘completion’ was defined by IAPT as attending 2 or more sessions]. This pattern of engagement is identical to that found in my 2018 study    there are no signs of improvement, see the Table from my paper ‘IAPT – The Need For Radical Reform’

IAPT’s engagement and retention of clients (n=90).


1. 23.6% of clients either did not initiate contact with IAPT (an opt-in arrangement) or IAPT were unable to contact them to arrange an assessment
2. 13.3% attended only an initial assessment
3. The mean number of treatment sessions attended was 5.5 with a median of 4.0 sessions, with missing data on one client

4. 39.3% attended 2 or less treatment sessions 5. 57.3% attended less than 6 treatment sessions 6. 23.6% attended 6–8 treatment sessions
7. 80.9% attended 8 treatment sessions or less 8. 4.5% attended 20 more treatment sessions

If such rates of ‘decline’ of treatment had been present in the randomised controlled trials  of the efficacy of CBT, then the latter would have been summarily dismissed.  There would have been no NICE guidance advocating CBT for depression and the anxiety disorders. In the IAPT service the average number sessions attended by those who engage in treatment is 6, this would be regarded as a sub-therapeutic dose of treatment in any of the rcts for CBT. No trial of CBT has ever been conducted with the average dosage delivered in IAPT. It strains all credibility to believe IAPT’s claim that it has achieved the 50% recovery rate that is common place in the rcts of CBT.

IAPT ignores the haemorrhaging and deftly switches the public focus to waiting times and numbers seen. The advantage of such key indicators is that it can always be claimed that with more funding waiting times will reduce and numbers seen increase and so the Titanic continues at speed. The crucial question that is avoided is ‘do waiting times matter in a context in which most decline to engage or complete treatment?’.

An unholy alliance between NHS England and IAPT has meant that the latter’s definition of the key indicators of success has been allowed to hold sway. The public are the victims of a failed duty of care.


Dr Mike Scott

Mental Health – Propaganda For IAPT and Antidepressants Far Outstrips Evidence of Effectiveness

a just published editorial in Psychological Medicine 1–10. indicates that it is  doubtful that antidepressants exert a clinically significant effect compared to being on a waiting list for depressed patients. Strangely the editorial goes on to recommend IAPT as an addition to antidepressants. But there are major problems with this a) the effect of IAPT has never been compared to a waiting list b) IAPT clinicians do not make a diagnosis, so that it is unknown whether IAPT makes a difference for depression c) there has never been an independent evaluation of IAPT. In fairness to the writers of the editorial they do suggest halting the embrace of IAPT until the Service demonstrates that it has a long term effect.  NHS England and Clinical Commissioning Groups should at least heed this latter point. 

here is my 5 minute interview with BBC TV,

and a link to the waiting list  investigation by BBC Radio 4 last week:

the main points of my interview are:

  • only the tip of the iceberg of those attending IAPT fully recover this contrasts with the Organisations claim of a 50% recovery rate
  • IAPT has only ever marked its’ own homework, despite over £3 billion being spent on it in the last decade. There has been no independent assessment of outcome, of the quality that would be expected were the effectiveness of a drug was being evaluated
  • IAPT fails to effectively engage and treat people. The IAPT Annual Report (2018)/2019] see link below, reveals that a third (31.2%) of new referrals drop out before treatment and approximately two thirds (61.1%) do not complete a course of treatment (using IAPT’s liberal definition of treatment as attending 2 or more session) with almost a third (29.54 %)  attending only one treatment session.

  • the most common gateway into IAPT is via a 20-30 minute telephone assessment with the most junior members of staff who are trained to signpost people via problem descriptors they do not make diagnoses
  • most IAPT clients do not get psychological therapy rather they are given either guided self help, computerised cbt or invited to attend a class/group i.e they receive low intensity interventions which are without the evidence base of the psychological therapies (high intensity)

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:

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