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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Melanie Woodfield, HRC Clinical Research Training Fellow, University of Auckland, Waipapa Taumata Rau

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New Zealand’s youth mental healthcare continues to experience a rolling crisis with long waiting times for services. There have been calls to expand the mental health workforce and to diversify the range of available services.

But improving the quality of mental healthcare is also an important priority. As our research shows, it can help to shorten bulging waiting lists and retain staff in the workforce.

Better implementation of proven therapies is a key component of delivering quality care – effective, safe, people-centred, culturally responsive and equity enhancing care that leads to improved outcomes for patients.

This obviously has direct benefits, but there are indirect benefits, too. Quality care can result in people spending less time in treatment and services having greater capacity and shorter wait times. It can also increase clinician satisfaction, and mitigate burnout and workforce attrition.

Training is necessary, but not sufficient

Most clinicians working in mental health are trained in evidence-based therapies. These are often talking therapies that have been proven effective for most people through research studies such as clinical trials.

But internationally there is often a gap between what clinicians are trained to do and what they actually do at the bedside or in the therapy room.

Large studies of treatments in general healthcare across multiple conditions and age ranges have shown only about 60% of healthcare is currently aligned with evidence-based guidelines. According to this research, 30% is “waste, duplication or of low value” and 10% is actually harmful.

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NZ is bound by international mental health agreements – statistics for Māori show we’re failing to uphold them

In Aotearoa, there are countless examples of this “know-do” gap. Many mental health services deliver therapies based on dialectical behaviour therapy to help young people and adults improve their emotional regulation. But few deliver these in the way they were designed.

National autism guidelines have been available for almost two decades, but adherence is patchy because of clinicians’ doubts about their usefulness. Finally, despite Parent-Child Interaction Therapy being an effective treatment for childhood conduct problems, the usability and acceptability of some parts, especially use of “time out”, may be offputting for clinicians.

As clinicians working within mental health services, we have seen that good people are trying to do good things for those in need. Thanks to many decades of research, there’s substantial knowledge about what works for improving mental health.

There will always be a need to develop and adapt therapies, but a central challenge is better implementation of those we already have.

Young person in a therapy session, listening and smiling
Better implementation of therapies that have been shown to work could mean people spend less time in treatment.
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Better implementation of proven therapies

Implementation science is a relatively new field. It studies methods to enhance the adoption, implementation and sustained delivery of evidence-based practices to improve the quality of routine care.

Rather than asking tired clinicians to do more, implementation science can identify the influences on clinician behaviour and target supports accordingly. Implementation science teaches us that providing guidelines or training in evidence-based therapy is necessary, but often not enough to achieve quality care.

Complex factors such as a clinician’s belief in their own capability, attitudes, intentions and emotions can have a powerful influence on how well they implement therapies. So can team or service-related factors such as leadership, wider organisational culture and climate, policy, priorities and resourcing.

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To improve implementation of evidence-based therapies, it’s essential to first understand and prioritise the enablers and barriers clinicians experience in their daily work. Next, it’s important to carefully choose implementation supports or strategies to address these barriers.

In our research, clinicians trained in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy often lacked necessary equipment.

International examples of implementation support come from a large project that provides more than 70 strategies to improve care. These include identifying local opinion leaders or quality champions, auditing care delivery, providing supervision and feedback to clinicians, and creating professional learning collaborations.

Quality in action

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we see encouraging examples of better implementation already underway. Health New Zealand-Te Whatu Ora is rolling out national clinical networks, including one dedicated to mental health. Their aim is to promote national standards for care quality in partnership with whānau, consumers and local communities.

Beyond mental health, apparently simple solutions such as surgical checklists have been shown to substantially improve quality, even in resource-limited settings.

Exciting initiatives in neighbouring health fields can also inform implementation in mental health. A new equity-focused implementation framework based on Te Tiriti o Waitangi but designed to support mainstream services provides guidance for implementation planning, monitoring and evaluation.

People deserve access to effective mental healthcare. Unless we urgently prioritise its quality, we are at risk of developing an ill-equipped workforce that turns over rapidly, or creating a situation where fully-staffed teams deliver low-value care.

Given we’re living in resource-constrained times, we must ensure care is the best it can be. Service leaders, funders and policymakers must urgently consider how we can best equip existing and new staff to deliver quality care, based on insights from implementation science.

It cannot be postponed until services are fully staffed and waitlists have disappeared.

The Conversation

Melanie Woodfield works as a clinical psychologist for Te Whatu Ora (Health New Zealand). She receives funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

Hiran Thabrew does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. NZ’s mental healthcare is in crisis – but research shows us how to shorten wait times and keep staff –