The application of Cartwright's concept of capacities to complex interventions in psychiatry


  • Dieneke Hubbeling MA MSc MRCPsych

    Consultant Psychiatrist, Corresponding author
    • Wandsworth Crisis and Home Treatment Team, Springfield Academic Hospital, London, UK
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Dr Dieneke Hubbeling

Wandsworth Crisis and Home Treatment Team

Springfield Academic Hospital

61 Glenburnie Road

London SW17 7DJ




Cartwright and Munro argued that extrapolation of findings from randomized controlled trials to other settings can be difficult because information about the underlying causal structure and subgroups is often not available. They advocated the use of ‘capacities’ – that is fixed causal contributions – in predicting effects of interventions. In psychiatry, it is often not possible to determine what the fixed causal contributions are and one can only establish ‘approximate capacities’. However, using ‘approximate capacities’ does imply a different way of evaluating health services, especially combined interventions. In health service research, if different studies, randomized controlled trials or other designs, have given different outcomes, the best way to investigate the effectiveness of a particular way of service organization is not to conduct more randomized controlled trials. It is preferable to study the effects of certain elements of the complex intervention, which have been tested before in other settings, that is investigating ‘approximate capacities’. One should check whether the separate elements do form a part of the complex intervention in practice and whether they have the same effect as in other studies and if not, why not. This enhances knowledge about the underlying causal structure and increases the possibility of extrapolation of the findings.