A nursing director has developed an online cognitive behavioural therapists' course as part of his MBA. Lyn Whitfield reports

An Oxford trust has launched the UK's first online cognitive behavioural therapy training and supervision service.

The Oxford cognitive therapy centre, a specialist agency within Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Mental Health Partnership trust, loaded the first training modules onto its new website in March and is already holding tutorials over the net. The service will supplement the centre's traditional courses, which are over-subscribed, and support the expansion of psychological therapies proposed by the Layard report and promised by health secretary Alan Johnson last year.

It is also intended to generate revenue for the centre and trust, which is hoping to gain foundation status later in 2008.

The project to develop the new service was headed by the trust's director of nursing and clinical governance, Jon Allen, as part of his MBA at Oxford University's Said Business School.

"I have always had a strong, personal interest in CBT," he says. "And in developing its ongoing business plan for foundation status, the trust had realised psychological therapies were an area in which it had a lot of strengths. So I looked at CBT as area for expansion and innovation.

"At the same time, the Layard report and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines put CBT and other psychological therapies at the front line of treatment for anxiety and depression. They implied a growing demand for CBT and other training. So putting all these things together, I looked to leverage [our] resources."

It soon became clear, however, that it would have been difficult - or at least expensive and risky - to substantially increase the centre's training and supervision capacity in the traditional way, using classroom teaching and presentations.

Instead, the project worked with digital communications company In Situ Productions to develop a range of 15 to 20-minute online training sessions that mix video presentations and filmed role-plays with slides and notes on screen. The company also provides online meeting facilities for tutorials.

In Situ founder Paul Newman says the key to developing the new service was to focus on the content, rather than the technology used to deliver it. "We really worked with the therapists to build up their confidence in working in front of a camera," he adds. "They were all excellent classroom teachers, but they had to think about working in a new way."

Oxford cognitive therapy centre director David Westbrook, who leads some of the traditional classes, confirms that it was a "challenge" to distil hours of teaching and seminar work into short segments. But there are advantages in the online format.

"One of the benefits is that people are not only told something, they get to see it role-played, which is not always possible in classroom teaching," he says. The project recruited trainee psychologists and graduate mental health workers to play people undergoing therapy.

The new training and tutorial services are being offered on a subscription basis. "We have put a financial model around this," says Mr Allen. "It got through the trust's procedures for developing business opportunities and we are confident that it will be a significant service for the NHS and internationally.

"As a foundation trust, we would want this venture to go well, because it will give us a revenue stream. However, even if that does not happen, we will get a return on our investment just from training our own people."

Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Mental Health Partnership trust is already using the technology to deliver some mandatory training to its staff.

Mr Westbrook is keen to expand the number of online modules and create webcasts from presentations at the centre, which is able to attract international experts.

This, he points out, would not only make them available to more people, but would cut the amount of travelling involved and therefore play into green concerns.

"I do think this is a really good service that will support an important national agenda in terms of developing the therapy workforce and that it will give people access to very good materials and support," Mr Allen concludes.

"This will allow people to watch world renowned therapists not only talking, but taking people through the CBT process.

"It will also give them access to top class supervisors without having to drive around the country or even the world. Of course, we also hope that it will deliver benefits for the trust."

Information about the Oxford cognitive therapy centre and its training and supervision can be found on at www.octc.co.uk. Information about In Situ Productions can be found at www.insituproductions.com