IAPT’s Researchers Failure to see the Elephant in the Room

 a meaningless outcome measure.

The January issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, contains a paper by Delgadillo et al claiming that 52.3% of those routed along a stratified treatment pathway showed a reliable and clinically significant improvement (RCSI), compared to 45.1% along the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) usual stepped care pathway. The additional cost of the stratified pathway was £104.5 per patient, representing the additional time devoted to a patient  to determine the data needed to put into an algorithim and determine whether low intensity should be first or high intensity first. The authors concluded that for this additional sum there was approximately a 7% increase in the probability of RCSI. But at no point do the authors question the validity of adopting IAPT’s self-report metric for outcome.


There has never been independent assessment of treatment outcome in IAPT. Further there is no evidence that the changes in IAPT self-report measures represent an added value over the comparable changes when counselling was employed pre-IAPT. There are a number of reasons why there would be improvements on self-report measures as treatment progresses that have little to do with therapeutic effectiveness including: A) regression to the mean, as patients tend to present initially at their worst B) the test results are a focus in therapy, creating a demand issue for the patient and C) patients, understandably, do not wish to feel they’ve wasted their time.

IAPT ignores the fact that the context in which a psychometric test is conducted is crucial. Used in isolation, they are a mirage of the client’s real-world concerns. The RCSI is a perfectly reasonable outcome measure if used in a controlled trial in which the diagnostic status of the patient has been assessed with a standardised reliable interview, at the beginning and at a minimum post-treatment. But in the Delgadillio et al (2022) study, as in all IAPT studies, no diagnosis is made using in gold-standard semi-structured interviews. The population addressed lacks specificity, the only boundary for entry into the study was a PHQ9 score greater than 10, making replication highly problematic. The title of the Delgadillio et al (2022) study suggests that focus was on depression but there can be no certainty that this is actually that case.


The Delgadillio et al (2022) study does not address whether a patient would see the apparent difference in outcome between stratified approach and a step approach as a difference that matters. It is impossible to gauge from study what proportion of patients lost their diagnostic status along the differing trajectories. The self-report measures used by refer to functioning in the previous two weeks, patients typically have their treatment’s terminated when their score falls below a threshold of 10 on the PHQ9. But anxious and depressed patients experience waxing and waning of symptoms so that a reliable outcome must specify the duration of recovery, for example eight weeks. The supposed recoveries in IAPT could often be flashes in the pan.

Dr Mike Scott


Delgadillo J, Ali S, Fleck K, et al. Stratified Care vs Stepped Care for Depression: A Cluster Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2022;79(2):101-108. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.3539


485 words




The Damaging Consequences of Not Offering The Best Mental Health Treatment Initially

many will vote with their feet when it comes to further treatment from the same source. Stepped care is the treatment model adopted by the UK Government’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Programme. A third (34%) of those who have low intensity therapy are stepped up to high intensity city, according to the IAPT Manual 2021, but the Manual cautions there is considerable local variation in this figure. The question is why? This does not sound like clients following well-defined pathways. As far as I can ascertain IAPT does not publish a recovery rate from low intensity alone, so it is not known what proportion haemorrhage from low intensity.  IAPT is the only show in Town for most people so it is not surprising that when treatment fails some return. For every 2 people referred to IAPT 1 person is attending for between their second and tenth plus courses of treatment – a revolving door. [Following a Freedom of Information Request from Dr Elisabeth Cotton in 2018, it appears that 1.5 million people were referred to IAPT between 2 and 10 or more occasions in a 6 year period (2012-2018), with 3.2 million people referred just once].



What is going on here? NHS England is replete with the following luminaries according to the IAPT Manual (2021), so it is no surprise that there has been no publicly funded independent audit of the Service:

Current NHS England team

Sarah Holloway, Head of Mental Health, NHS England
Xanthe Townend, Programme Lead – IAPT & Dementia, NHS England

David M. Clark, Professor and Chair of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford; National Clinical and Informatics Adviser for IAPT

Adrian Whittington, National Lead for Psychological Professions, NHSE/I and HEE; IAPT National Clinical Advisor: Education

Jullie Tran Graham, Senior IAPT Programme Manager
Hayley Matthews, IAPT Programme Manager, NHS England Andrew Armitage, IAPT Senior Project Manager, NHS England Sarah Wood, IAPT Project Manager, NHS England

 It appears common sense for IAPT to offer the least costly service first e.g computer assisted therapy and then progress clients to the more costly face to face service if the minimalist intervention has not worked. But IAPT have borrowed from medical care a modus operandi that is not fit for purpose in mental health. For example there is evidence that for some with back pain, physiotherapy will resolve  problems and is the sensible first line treatment, with progression to the costly surgical interventions if physiotherapy does not suffice. But low intensity psychological therapy does not have the evidence base of physiotherapy. This opens up the likelihood that LI will fail to return the client to their best functioning.  Approx a third of clients (37%) receive low intensity only and a third (29%) high intensity only.


The mental health clients take on a failed  first line treatment is likely to involve personalisation e.g  ‘I am stupid, couldn’t quite get what was being asked to do’ and arbitrary inferences e.g ‘I shouldn’t have expected anything would work with me, just my luck’. This is quite different to how most people would likely respond to a failed first line physical intervention. For mental health treatment it may be the the best treatment should be provided first. At a minimum clients should be informed that they are consenting to what is known to be second best.


Dr Mike Scott



Groups An Attractive Option…. But?

Last month I gave a days workshop ‘Better Together’ at the Maudsley Hospital for an IAPT Service, I did think it was going into the lion’s den but the hospitality was superb.  The link to my presentation is below:

I presented  for the  first time the DAGger for groups, a questionnaire containing the dysfuntional attitudes that will often have to  be circumnavigated to successfully engage someone in a group. I also spelt out how to engage in a debate about the ‘DAG’s using the vectors of validity, utility and authority. But such dialogues are not easily possible with IAPT’s standard triage, there is a need  for reform to make groups properly viable. One of the problems with groups is that those most likely to benefit from groups are those least likely to agree to attend!

Groups are not the same as classes and I was struck at the Workshop by the lack of understanding that there is a strong evidence base for the former       for depression and most  anxiety disorders but the evidence base for the latter is extremely weak by comparison. There was also near universal acceptance that a stepped care model was intrinsically better and that not having an extended face to face conversation with a client initially was in any way problematic. Near the end I did mention my  findings of a 10% recovery rate in IAPT see link below:

but by then attendees were either too tired/polite/fearful to say anything. But I must thank Marion Cuddy the organiser for a great day.

Dr Mike Scott


IAPT’s New Direction – ‘maybe, shove them all through low intensity’

that’s the take home message from a just published IAPT study conducted in the North East of England by Boyd, Reilly and Baker (2019), see link below:

This would mean that those with PTSD and social anxiety disorder would first fall into the orbit of low intensity interventions. Never mind that there is no empirical evidence from randomised controlled trials that these disorders respond to low intensity interventions.

Boyd, Baker and Reilly (2019) reiterate the populist myth that there is ‘sound evidence of the efficacy of low intensity interventions’ . This only becomes true if one lowers the methodological bar as low as in their own study, which was reliant entirely on self-report measures administered outside the context of a reliable diagnostic interview. These authors cite a study by Bowers et al (2013) in support of the effectiveness of low intensity interventions but these authors acknowledge that a key limitation of their study was generalisability, because patients were not reliably assessed for depression, see link below:

If the North East of England study is taken on board by IAPT, there is less need to worry about clients being on waiting lists for high intensity treatments, because they are allegedly already getting something worthwhile! Who needs high intensity therapists?

IAPT’s research and treatment is conducted on another planet from the lived experience of clients. Take the case of Tara, she suffered from depression after a fall and from a phobia about tripping, that I established with a diagnostic interview. She then had 6 IAPT face to face low intensity sessions which were described as guided self help, 2 of these involved behavioural activation. Her PHQ9 scores stayed at 19/20, which was not significantly different to when I 1st saw her with a PHQ9 score of 21. Treatment made no difference at all, though she valued the opportunity to talk she was very upset after the sessions. Tara was then put on a 3-4 month waiting list for high intensity CBT. The documentation revealed that there had been no evidence of fidelity to an evidence based treatment programme for depression and no attempt to address her phobia. Initially she had a telephone assessment with IAPT.

There is a wholesale abscence of appropriate treatment in IAPT and in practice its’ stepped care model violates continuity of care. It should try listening to clients and subjecting itself to independent audit, instead of playing with large sets of meaningless numbers, to justify funding.

Dr Mike Scott


Clinical Commissioning Groups Need To Know What Actually Happens Behind IAPT’s Closed Doors

this can be achieved by asking local GPs to ask patients about their experience and crucially to determine what proportion of patients returned to normal functioning after referral to IAPT.

Most IAPT clients receive low intensity CBT, with only 20% recovering, half of whom relapse in a year [ Ali et al (2017)]. Only 10% of LICBT patients are stepped up to high intensity. Independent assessment suggests the overall recovery rate in IAPT is just 15%.[ Scott (2018)]

Results Show IAPT To Be No Better Than Pre-existing Services

A study from 2006 profiled the improvement rates of 32 primary care counselling services using the CORE Outcome Measure. (CORE-OM). The mean level of reliable improvement (including clients that also recovered)  was 72%. Across IAPT, the reliable improvement figure was 66%. But services can be re-organised to transform IAPT Scott (2018)

The Failure To Inspect

CCG’s and the National Audit Office show a conspicuous lack of interest in what is happening behind the closed doors of IAPT, preferring to take the Organisations marketing at face value. IAPT appears not to be accountable to the Care Quality Commission. But the CQC’s failure to effectively monitor institutions catering for those with learning difficulties and autism has unearthed a scandal, and instils little confidence in a critical appraisal of IAPT anytime soon.

An Illustration Of The Travails of a Low Intensity IAPT Recipient

Ted’s case illustrates the dire quality of service, he met IAPT in 2014, the records stated that he had been a worrier all his life, but no diagnosis was made. He was no better after 18 months of low intensity cbt. A lost soul:

Initially Ted was directed to a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner and computerised CBT, Beating the Blues. Ted is recorded as finding the sessions helpful. At the end of LICBT it is recorded that

‘he would prefer not to access cbt again as good understanding of how his negative thoughts impact his behaviour regularly reads his previous cbt notes but implementation does not improve mood’ his psychometric test results are shown below, ‘his billboard’:

Feb 14   10   14  
 March 14 8   7
  May 14 5   9
  July 16 21 15
  August 16 20   18

At the end of his low intensity journey, there was again no assessment of his diagnostic status and he was understandably not enthusiastic about further CBT. It seems likely that few people are stepped up from low intensity to high intensity because cbt is at best seen as having limited utility.

Ali et al (2017) How durable is the effect of low intensity CBT for depression and anxiety? Remission and relapse in a longitudinal cohort study Behaviour Research and Therapy 94 (2017) 1-8

Dr Mike Scott