Objective: Early-intervention units have proliferated over the last decade, justified in terms of cost as well as treatment effect. Strong claims for extension of these programmes on economic grounds motivate a systematic review of economic evaluations of early-intervention programmes.
Method: Searches were undertaken in the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, PubMed, EMBASE, and PsycINFO with keywords including ‘early intervention’, ‘ultra-high risk’, ‘prodrome’, ‘cost-effectiveness’, ‘psychosis’, ‘economic’, and ‘at-risk mental state’. Relevant journals, editorials, and the references of retrieved articles were hand-searched for appropriate research. Results: Eleven articles were included in the review. The more rigorous research (two randomized control trials and two quasi-experimental studies) suggested no difference in resource utilization or costs between early-intervention and treatment-as-usual groups. One small case-control study with evidence of significant bias concluded annual early-intervention costs were one-third of treatment-as-usual costs. Modelling studies projected reduced costs of early intervention but were based on assumptions since definitively revised. Cost-effectiveness analyses did not strongly support the cost-effectiveness of early intervention. No studies appropriately valued outpatient costs or addressed the feasibility of realizing reduced hospitalization in reduced costs.
Conclusions: The published literature does not support the contention that early intervention for psychosis reduces costs or achieves cost-effectiveness. Past failed attempts to reduce health costs by reducing hospitalization, and increased outpatient costs in early-intervention programmes suggest such programmes may increase costs. Future economic evaluation of early-intervention programmes would need to correctly value outpatient costs and accommodate uncertainty regarding reduced hospitalization costs, perhaps by sensitivity analysis. The current research hints that cost differences may be greater early in treatment and in patients with more severe illness.