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Hunt commits to maximum waiting times for talking therapies

The Government is to improve access to talking therapies by setting a maximum waiting time for patients, health secretary Jeremy Hunt has promised.

Mr Hunt told the House of Commons that the Government has ‘taken great strides’ in improving take-up of talking therapies, and strengthened its current commitments in the NHS Mandate to increase access.

GP leaders welcomed the commitment, stating that GPs are under pressure due to their patients’ long waits for CBT, but warned this must lead to earlier treatment and not simply earlier contact.

Answering a question from Simon Danczuk, the MP for Rochdale, Littleborough and Milnrow, on talking therapies on 26 November, Mr Hunt said: ‘This is a big priority for the Government. We are a big fan of talking therapies. We have taken huge strides in improving take-up, but there is still a long way to go, and we are looking at introducing access standards, so that there is a maximum time beyond which no one has to wait.’

The Department of Health tasked NHS England, via the NHS Mandate, into looking into how this could be achieved. The mandate, published in November, said: ‘We will […] work with [NHS England] to consider new access standards, including waiting times, for mental health services, including the financial implications of any such standards.’

However, an NHS England spokesperson declined to give specifics on what NHS England was considering.

She said: ‘There is work being done within NHS England to understand the waiting times experienced by people accessing psychological therapies. This analysis will inform decisions that will be required to ensure appropriate capacity for the reduction in variation of access to care.’

Dr Ian Walton, a GPSI on mental health practising in Kent, said: ‘The traditional way would have been to invest more money, but I think we need to take a multi-faceted approach.’

Asked whether it was possible that NHS England would put mental health services out to AQP, Dr Walton added: ‘It is possible. If they were to put counselling out to AQP that would be very interesting because they are so many providers out there. What the outcomes on mental health would be, I don’t know.’

GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey warned that the maximum waiting times would need to be different from the targets previously rolled out as part of the IAPT scheme to be effective.

He said: ‘One of the perverse incentives of IAPT is that you’re only looking at the timing of the initial telephone triage process but the actual treatment appointment start much later. We need to be careful not to set an arbitrary target that is simply about making early contact.’

‘That is clearly important but only if that subsequently leads on to early treatment.’

‘We have seen this time and time again with targets that have turned out to be less than useless, or actually counterproductive. There are big waits for CBT or straight forward counselling in many parts of the country and that is putting the pressure back onto GPs, who don’t have the ability to make those sort of referrals with the certainty that the patient will be seen in a timely manner.’

He added: ‘This is about investing in people, so it does cost money and that is one of the challenges.’