The effect of non-specialist health workers on people with mental, neurological and substance-abuse disorders in developing countries

Background

In developing countries, most people with mental, neurological and substance-abuse (MNS) disorders do not receive adequate care mainly because of a lack of mental health professionals. Non-specialist health workers, but also other professionals with health roles, such as teachers, may therefore have an important role to play in delivering MNS health care.

Researchers in The Cochrane Collaboration carried out a review of the effects of using non-specialist health workers or other professionals with health roles to help people with MNS disorders in developing countries. After searching for all relevant studies in scientific databases, they found 38 studies published before October 2012. Their findings are summarised below.

What is a non-specialist health worker?

Any type of health worker (like a doctor, nurse or lay health worker) who is not a specialist in mental health or neurology but who may have had some training in these fields. We also looked at teachers, as they can be particularly important in the care of children and youths.

What the research says

The studies in this review were from 22 developing countries. In most studies, lay health workers delivered the mental health care, and addressed depression or anxiety (or both), or post-traumatic stress disorder. The review shows that the use of non-specialist health workers, compared with usual healthcare services:

· may increase the number of adults who recover from depression or anxiety (or both) two to six months after treatment;

· may slightly reduce symptoms for mothers with depression;

· may slightly reduce the symptoms of adults with post-traumatic stress disorder (non-specialists and teachers were used in one study);

· probably slightly improves the symptoms of people with dementia;

· probably improves/slightly improves the mental well-being, burden and distress of carers of people with dementia;

· may decrease the quantity of alcohol consumed by problem drinkers.

It is uncertain whether lay health workers or teachers reduce post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms among children. There were too few studies to draw any conclusions about the cost-effectiveness of using non-specialist health workers or teachers, or about their impact on people with other MNS conditions such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, and alcohol and drug abuse problems. In addition, very few studies measured unintended consequences of non-specialist health worker-led care - such effects could impact on the appropriateness and quality of care.

Quality of the evidence

Overall, non-specialist health workers and teachers have some promising benefits in improving people's outcomes for general and perinatal depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol-use disorders, and patient and carer outcomes for dementia. However, this evidence is of low or very low quality in some areas, and for some issues no evidence is available. Therefore, we cannot make conclusions about which specific interventions using non-specialist health workers to help people with MNS disorders are more effective.

Authors' conclusions: 

Overall, NSHWs and teachers have some promising benefits in improving people's outcomes for general and perinatal depression, PTSD and alcohol-use disorders, and patient- and carer-outcomes for dementia. However, this evidence is mostly low or very low quality, and for some issues no evidence is available. Therefore, we cannot make conclusions about which specific NSHW-led interventions are more effective.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Many people with mental, neurological and substance-use disorders (MNS) do not receive health care. Non-specialist health workers (NSHWs) and other professionals with health roles (OPHRs) are a key strategy for closing the treatment gap.

Objectives: 

To assess the effect of NSHWs and OPHRs delivering MNS interventions in primary and community health care in low- and middle-income countries.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (including the Cochrane Effective Practice and Organisation of Care (EPOC) Group Specialised Register) (searched 21June 2012); MEDLINE, OvidSP; MEDLINE In Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations, OvidSP; EMBASE, OvidSP (searched 15 June 2012); CINAHL, EBSCOhost; PsycINFO, OvidSP (searched 18 and 19 June 2012); World Health Organization (WHO) Global Health Library (searched 29 June 2012); LILACS; the International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (WHO); OpenGrey; the metaRegister of Controlled Trials (searched 8 and 9 August 2012); Science Citation Index and Social Sciences Citation Index (ISI Web of Knowledge) (searched 2 October 2012) and reference lists, without language or date restrictions. We contacted authors for additional studies.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised and non-randomised controlled trials, controlled before-and-after studies and interrupted-time-series studies of NSHWs/OPHR-delivered interventions in primary/community health care in low- and middle-income countries, and intended to improve outcomes in people with MNS disorders and in their carers. We defined an NSHW as any professional health worker (e.g. doctors, nurses and social workers) or lay health worker without specialised training in MNS disorders. OPHRs included people outside the health sector (only teachers in this review).

Data collection and analysis: 

Review authors double screened, double data-extracted and assessed risk of bias using standard formats. We grouped studies with similar interventions together. Where feasible, we combined data to obtain an overall estimate of effect.

Main results: 

The 38 included studies were from seven low- and 15 middle-income countries. Twenty-two studies used lay health workers, and most addressed depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The review shows that the use of NSHWs, compared with usual healthcare services: 1. may increase the number of adults who recover from depression or anxiety, or both, two to six months after treatment (prevalence of depression: risk ratio (RR) 0.30, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.14 to 0.64; low-quality evidence); 2. may slightly reduce symptoms for mothers with perinatal depression (severity of depressive symptoms: standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.42, 95% CI -0.58 to -0.26; low-quality evidence); 3. may slightly reduce the symptoms of adults with PTSD (severity of PTSD symptoms: SMD -0.36, 95% CI -0.67 to -0.05; low-quality evidence); 4. probably slightly improves the symptoms of people with dementia (severity of behavioural symptoms: SMD -0.26, 95% CI -0.60 to 0.08; moderate-quality evidence); 5. probably improves/slightly improves the mental well-being, burden and distress of carers of people with dementia (carer burden: SMD -0.50, 95% CI -0.84 to -0.15; moderate-quality evidence); 6. may decrease the amount of alcohol consumed by people with alcohol-use disorders (drinks/drinking day in last 7 to 30 days: mean difference -1.68, 95% CI -2.79 to -0.57); low-quality evidence).

It is uncertain whether lay health workers or teachers reduce PTSD symptoms among children. There were insufficient data to draw conclusions about the cost-effectiveness of using NSHWs or teachers, or about their impact on people with other MNS conditions. In addition, very few studies measured adverse effects of NSHW-led care - such effects could impact on the appropriateness and quality of care.