Monday, November 2, 2015

If CBT came in a pill, how much would it cost?

- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH

Family physicians commonly treat patients with depression, anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sleep disorders, and other psychiatric conditions. Although some patients respond to medication, prescribing has significant downsides. Antidepressants can increase suicide risk, and a study that once declared medications to be superior to behavioral therapy for ADHD is now receiving a second look. In contrast, an article by Drs. Scott Coffey, Anne Banducci, and Christine Vinci in the November 1st issue of American Family Physician reported that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) effectively relieves symptoms of all of these conditions, plus those from post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, obsessive-compulsive and tic disorders, personality disorders, and eating disorders. The article answered several common questions about CBT, including how it works:

The aim of CBT is to help patients adopt more adaptive patterns of thinking and behavior to improve function and quality of life. Treatment goals are selected collaboratively with patients to determine whether progress is being made. CBT involves three core strategies applied alone or in combination, depending on the patients' needs: (1) identifying and challenging problematic thoughts and beliefs, with the goal of helping patients develop more realistic and adaptive thoughts and beliefs, (2) scheduling pleasant activities to increase environmental reinforcement, and (3) extended exposure to unpleasant thoughts, situations, or physiologic sensations to decrease avoidance and arousal associated with anxiety-eliciting stimuli.

Finding a qualified therapist many be a challenge in some communities, and CBT usually doesn't come cheaply. However, CBT for most conditions is time-limited: one session per week for 8 to 12 weeks. At $150 to 200 per session, the typical cost for a treatment course would be between $1200 and $2400.

In comparison, a one-month supply of the newer antidepressants levomilnacipran, vortioxetine, and vilazodone (which are labeled only for treatment of major depressive disorder in adults, and are often prescribed indefinitely) cost $286, $254, and $149, respectively, at the time each drug was reviewed in AFP's STEPS (Safety, Tolerability, Effectiveness, Price, and Simplicity) department. So a newer antidepressant could cost as much or more than a course of CBT in as little as 4 to 8 months.

If CBT could somehow be packaged into a pill and patented, though, it would likely cost a lot more, given its versatility and enormous potential market share. It might become the next big blockbuster drug, like newer antiviral treatments for hepatitis C that cost between $84,000 and $156,000 for a 12-week course of treatment, or $1000 or more for a single pill. Or, since CBT has been around since the 1960s, perhaps a better benchmark would be the infamous recent example of the 62 year-old drug pyrimethamine (Daraprim), whose manufacturer raised the per-tablet price from $13.50 to $750, literally overnight.

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