older psychiatryThe Government and NHS England need to make further improvements to access to psychological therapies to bring about true ‘parity of esteem’ for mental health patients as waiting times still vary widely, according to a new report.

While the independent study conducted by healthcare consultancy JMC Partners, ‘Psychological therapies: next steps towards parity of care’, judges the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies’ (IAPT) programme “a remarkable success story”, it highlights that more can be done to ensure people with mental ill health get equal access to effective psychological therapies.

In its first six years (2008/9-2013/14), the number of people seen under the IAPT programme has increased from 40,000 to more than 1.1 million, while average recovery rates have risen from 37% in 2009/2010 to 45% in 2013/14.

But the report also highlighted that many problems still exist in accessing psychological therapies.

A survey of 1,000 GPs across the UK, conducted as part of the report, found that 66% see waiting times for psychological therapy as the biggest barrier to treatment

21% of English GPs report that prescribing antidepressants is the most accessible treatment option for people with depression, whereas only 11% said referring a patient to local IAPT services was the most accessible option

Almost 37% of total IAPT referrals in 2013/14 did not actually enter treatment – with many more not completing a course of treatment

While 61% of people in 2013/14 accessed IAPT services within 28 days of referral into treatment, 11% – about 76,000 patients – waited for 90 days or more

Despite increases in funding for mental health, physical health expenditure is more than five times that on mental health

There is significant regional variation in mental health spend in England, ranging from under £8.5 million to over £30 million per 100,000 population – with similarly large variations in waiting times and recovery outcomes between the best and worst performing clinical commissioning groups (CCGs).

The health, social and economic cost of mental ill-health is estimated at £105 billion each year in England, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

The report lists 21 recommendations cutting across the Department of Health, NHS England, CCGs, the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) and other bodies.

Ensure local IAPT services have an option for self-referral by patients rather than by GPs – still not an option in some areas. In April 2015, 42% of referrals to IAPT were self-referrals

Improving triaging of patients to direct them to the service most appropriate to their needs and ensuring triage is managed by an independent third party (rather than a service provider)

Develop national standards for new models of care, such as digitally-enabled forms of therapy that enable patients to receive treatment via the internet

Expand information website NHS Choices’ database of psychological therapies, both IAPT and non-IAPT

For the Department of Health to consider bringing all psychological therapies under the IAPT umbrella.

The report also notes that in localities where IAPT services are primarily based around face-to-face therapies, services may struggle to meet demand and lead to longer waiting lists. It calls for greater awareness to be made of other options, particularly technological innovations that deliver effective treatment.

“The IAPT programme has seen a remarkable increase in the numbers of people being treated for common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety,” said Barnaby Perks, CEO of Ieso Digital Health, which commissioned the report. “Combined with new access and waiting time targets, it is making a reality of the Government’s vision for mental health to have ‘parity of esteem’ with physical illness.

“Six years into the programme, now seems like an appropriate time to evaluate progress and also take an objective look at the evidence to see where access to effective therapies can be improved.  In particular, we need to make sure that GPs and patients have access to, and are made aware of, different forms of treatment such as digitally-enabled services that allow patients to be seen quickly and treated effectively by professional therapists.”