Fundamentalism and The Improving Access To Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Service

The IAPT Service is a fundamentalist translation of evidence-based psychological therapy. ‘The power of evidence-based psychological treatment’ is the sub-title of the book ‘Thrive’ by Layard and Clark (2014,) the prime movers in the development of IAPT. Whilst acknowledging the potency of evidence-based psychological treatment, it is disingenuous of IAPT fellow-travellers to muddy the distinction between the latter and the IAPT service. IAPT is like a guest at a ball, masquerading as evidence-based psychological treatment. But the hosts: politicians, NHS England and Clinical Commissioning Groups consider it impolite to make detailed enquiry of the guest, they enjoy the company. Further the National Audit Office cares not that, the ‘ball’ costs £1 bilion this year. 

The important differences between the IAPT service and the psychological therapies delivered in randomised controlled trials are apparent in the extract from Table 1 Shafran et al (2021) summarised below:

A comparison of low intensity CBT and brief traditional CBT



‘Low Intensity’CBT

Brief Traditional ‘High Intensity’ CBT

Who – is it suitable for?


Widely used to address anxiety and depression across the age range and behavioural problems in children (e.g., Bennett et al., 2019; Cuijpers et al., 2010). Evidence supports its use for cases of all severity (Bower et al., 2013; Karyotaki et al., 2018). Typically not advocated where there are significant risk issues.


Typically used widely for disorders where longer traditional CBT would be appropriate

What – is delivered?


Interventions are based on the principles of generic CBT to enable individuals to learn specific techniques (for example graded exposure, cognitive restructuring, problem solving) with the goal of alleviating emotional distress and improving functioning. Between-session reading and excercises are central.


Intervention is an abbreviated version of full CBT, supplemented with provision of between session materials and excercises.


How long is the therapy?

Any input is typically 6 hours or less of contact, often delivered in 20-30 minute sessions

Therapy contact time is typically 50% or less than the full CBT intervention, usually delivered in 50-60 minute sessions


It is implicitly assumed by the advocates of IAPT that the identified differences in Table 1 do not matter. But they provide no evidence for this. The IAPT powerholders declare how therapy is to be delivered, in the absence of independent evidence of effectiveness. It represents the operation and implementation of a fundamentalist translation of the randomised controlled trials of primarily CBT for depression and the anxiety disorders. In keeping with a fundamentalist zeitgeist there is no open debate within IAPT or BABCP of the evidence for the effectiveness of the ‘alleged CBT’ in routine practice.

IAPT claims that it obtains results comparable to those achieved in rct’s but is this credible when in high intensity therapy ‘Therapy contact time is typically 50% or less than the full CBT intervention’ according to Table1? Is it credible that the organisers of the rct’s made the treatments they examined more than twice the length that was necessary? If this was indeed the case, the luminaries responsible for the trials would have been sanctioned by their funding bodies and their ability to attract further research funds, severely curtailed. The more plausible hypothesis is that IAPT does not in fact deliver evidence-based psychological treatment This despite its’ claim to do so to appease NICE, whose seal of approval is the gateway to funding..IAPT muddies the distinction between the power of evidence-based psychological treatment and the power of its’ service. 

Table 1 specifies that ‘low intensity CBT’ consists of ‘generic CBT’ but there has never been an rct of ‘generic CBT’, the rcts are of diagnosis specific protociols. Low intensity CBT cannot be regarded as an evidence-based treatment. Nevertheless, Shafran et al (2021) claim that low intensity CBT is evidence-based but inspection of the cited references reveal a different picture.

  1. The study by Karyotaki et al (2018) is an analysis guided internet-based interventions for depression compared to control groups, with respective remission rates of 38.51% and 21.5%. But patients in the predominantly waiting list control groups do not expect to get better, so that any differences may reflect a placebo effect. There were no active control groups with a credible rationale. The studies did not involve blind assessors and there was no determination of diagnostic status at the start or end of treatment. Patients chose to enter the study online and there could be no certainty that they were representative of depressed patients in general. The mean Beck Depression inventory score at entry to the internet studies 19.4, was almost a standard deviation down on mean scores of about 27 in established rcts [Scott and Stradling (1991)]. It is doubtful that the studies reviewed by Karyotaki et al (2018) provide any evidence that this low intensity CBT makes a real-world difference to clients lives.
  2. The study by Bower et al (2013) focused on whether the initial severity of depression influenced the effectiveness of low intensity interventions. As such it is not germane to the question of whether low intensity CBT is an evidence based treatment, however it cites the Cuijpers et al 2010 study doi:10.1017/S0033291710000772 as demonstrating the effectiveness of the latter. This study is also cited by Shafran et al (2021) in Table 1. In the Cuijpers et al (2010) study guided self help was compared with face to face therapy, but both treatments were determined largely by the results of a diagnostic interview (15 out of 21 studies), so that the intervention matched the diagnosis. No such diagnostic interview is conducted in either low or hight intensity IAPT.  The IAPT service has once again performed its’ own translation of the results of randomised controlled trials. Further in the Cuijpers et al (2010) review  the majority of the studies, 17 out of 21 involved media recruited clients, making the study of doubtful relevance to routine practice. In none of the studies was outcome assessed by a diagnostic interview involving a blind assessor. 

The clinical case for low intensity CBT has not been made, it is simply a short term economic convenience.Evidence that being stepped up to high intensity therapy makes a real-world difference is lacking.


Dr  Mike Scott