Promises to roll-out a four-week waiting time standard for children seeking mental health help appear to be up in the air after a consultation on plans warned of “unintended consequences”.
As pledged in the 2017 mental health green paper, the NHS piloted a four-week waiting time for children to access specialist mental health services.
Following the pilots in 2021, it then proposed the four-week wait would become a new standard that services would be expected to deliver. This would mean youngsters referred to community-based mental health services getting help within four weeks.
NHS data from 2021–22 showed youngsters waited on average nearly six weeks between referral and treatment.
Documents obtained after a freedom of information request by Schools Week show that in February 2022, NHS officials recommended instead to measure services on whether they are meeting the four weeks.
They did not want to set a “waiting time standard or trajectory towards it at this time”.
They said this would instead “signal to systems already under a great deal of pressure our intention to support sustainable improvements in waiting times, rather than making premature decisions that may have unintended consequences”.
While respondents welcomed the proposals, “they remain cautious about the risk of introducing perverse incentives and the risk of ‘gaming’ and internal waits”.
The officials also said pilot data showed “very little difference” and “proved inconclusive in terms of establishing a clear correlation between inputs, costs and waits”.
An NHS spokesperson said they “remain committed to publishing community mental health waiting time statistics… ahead of further work with government to help establish a formal performance standard”.
The Department of Health said it is discussing how to implement the findings of the trial.