At Issue: Cochrane, Early Intervention, and Mental Health Reform

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Among the noncommunicable diseases, mental ill-health represents the major threat to social and economic progress because it impacts so powerfully on the most critical decades of life. Consequently, mental health reform is increasingly recognized as an urgent priority worldwide. This brings into sharp focus the role of evidence, and more specifically the Cochrane paradigm, in influencing decisions about health system reform. Cochrane clearly still has great value, especially in evidence-based medicine, where the focus is the evaluation of individual treatments. However, it cannot be allowed to be a dominant influence in evidence-based health care (EBHC) policy decisions for health system reform, unless it is modernized or complemented. Health services reform should definitely be as evidence-based as possible; however, the jury should consider its verdict on key reform proposals based on the balance of probabilities and informed by the best “available” evidence from all sources, not only randomized clinical trials, which in many domains may be never be feasible. This is particularly the case when reform is urgent, and the status quo has manifestly failed. So on the one hand, the evidence-based paradigm must not be misused to stifle or paralyze urgent reform. Alternatively, there is a real risk that, if we do not improve the sophistication of EBHC, the whole paradigm will be sidelined and reform will remain reactive, impulsive, and desultory. The recent Cochrane review on early intervention in psychosis provides an opportunity to consider these issues and their wider significance.

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