Exploring unintended consequences of policy initiatives in mental health: the example of CAMHS in England

Foreman, D.M. BMJ Open. 2016. 6:e010714

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Objectives: The impact of policy and funding on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) activity and capacity, from 2003 to 2012, was assessed. The focus was on preschool children (aged 0–4 years), as current and 2003 policy initiatives stressed the importance of ‘early intervention’.

Settings: National service capacity from English CAMHS mapping was obtained from 2003 to 2008 inclusive. English Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) for English CAMHS was obtained from 2003 to 2012. The Child and Adolescent Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists surveyed its members about comparative 0–4-year service activity and attitudes in 2012.

Participants: CAMHS services in England provided HES and CAMHS mapping data. The Child and Adolescent Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists are child psychiatrists, including trainees.

Outcome measures: CAMHS mapping data provided national estimates of total numbers of CAMHS patients, whereas HES data counted appointments or episodes of inpatient care. The survey reported on Child Psychiatrists’ informal estimates of service activity and attitudes towards children aged 0–4 years.

Results: The association between service capacity and service activity was moderated by an interaction between specified funding and age, the youngest children benefiting least from specified funding and suffering most when it was withdrawn (Pr=0.005). Policy review and significant differences between age-specific HES trends (Pr<0.001) suggested this reflected prioritisation of older children. Clinicians were unaware of this effect at local level, though it significantly influenced their attitudes to prioritising this group (Pr=0.02).

Conclusions: If the new policy initiative for CAMHS is to succeed, it will need to have time-limited priorities attached to sustained, specified funding, with planning for limits as well as expansion. Data collection for policy evaluation should include measures of capacity and activity.

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