The Psychotherapy Practice Research Network (PPRNet) blog began in 2013 in response to psychotherapy clinicians, researchers, and educators who expressed interest in receiving regular information about current practice-oriented psychotherapy research. It offers a monthly summary of two or three published psychotherapy research articles. Each summary is authored by Dr. Tasca and highlights practice implications of selected articles. Past blogs are available in the archives. This content is only available in English.
…I blog about transtheoretical principles of change, microaggressions and outcomes, interpretations and outcomes.
Type of Research
- ALL Topics (clear)
- Alliance and Therapeutic Relationship
- Anxiety Disorders
- Attendance, Attrition, and Drop-Out
- Client Factors
- Client Preferences
- Cognitive Therapy (CT) and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
- Combination Therapy
- Common Factors
- Depression and Depressive Symptoms
- Efficacy of Treatments
- Feedback and Progress Monitoring
- Group Psychotherapy
- Illness and Medical Comorbidities
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)
- Long-term Outcomes
- Neuroscience and Brain
- Outcomes and Deterioration
- Personality Disorders
- Placebo Effect
- Practice-Based Research and Practice Research Networks
- Psychodynamic Therapy (PDT)
- Resistance and Reactance
- Self-Reflection and Awareness
- Suicide and Crisis Intervention
- Therapist Factors
- Transference and Countertransference
- Trauma and/or PTSD
- Treatment Length and Frequency
To Manualize or Not to Manualize
Truijens, F., Zühlke‐van Hulzen, L., & Vanheule, S. (2018). To manualize, or not to manualize: Is that still the question? A systematic review of empirical evidence for manual superiority in psychological treatment. Journal of Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication.
In 2010 Webb and colleagues published a meta-analysis in which they showed that the association between adherence to a psychotherapy manual and treatment outcome was close to zero. The same was true for therapist competence in delivering the manualized psychotherapy – almost no relationship to client outcome. Psychotherapy manuals typically specify the theoretical basis for an intervention, the number and sequencing of treatment sessions, the content and objective of sessions, and the procedures of each session. National institutes in the US and the UK have promoted manuals as a means to define what is evidence-based psychotherapy. By doing so these institutes assume that psychotherapy that is manualized is more effective that non-manualized treatment. However, detractors have argued that: (1) strict adherence to manuals may reduce therapists’ ability to individualize treatment to client needs and characteristics; (2) manuals are often designed for single disorders but clients tend to have many comorbid conditions; and (3) it is impossible for clinicians to gain competence in all different manuals for the various client conditions they may encounter. In this systematic review, Truijens and colleagues ask: does the use of manuals increase therapy effectiveness? To answer this question they conducted three different systematic reviews. First, they reviewed six studies that directly compared manualized versus non-manualized versions of a psychotherapy within the same study. One study showed manuals were superior, three showed no difference, and two studies showed that non-manualized therapies were more effective. Second, they reviewed eight meta-analyses that compared the pre- to post-treatment effect sizes of manualized therapies and of non-manualized therapies versus no-treatment control conditions. Three meta-analyses concluded that manualized therapies were superior, four meta-analyses did not find differences, and one observed non-manualized treatments to be superior. Third, the authors reviewed 15 additional studies to those reviewed by Webb and colleagues in their original meta-analysis. Overall, Truijens found similar results that support the conclusion that the level of adherence to psychotherapy manuals is not substantially related to better treatment outcomes.
Although treatment manuals may be helpful for training purposes and to ensure validity in psychotherapy research, there is actually little consistent evidence that adhering to a manual results in better client outcomes. Some have argued that rigid adherence to a treatment manual can be harmful to clients. Therapists may need to take a flexible stance when applying research-supported therapeutic principles and interventions. Such a stance adjusts therapy to take into account client characteristics like level of resistance, coping style, attachment style, and others. Truly evidence-informed approaches incorporate what we know about client characteristics, therapeutic relationship factors, and therapist factors to promote positive outcomes in psychotherapy clients.
Therapeutic Relationship Predicts Pharmacological Treatment Outcomes
Totura, C.M.W., Fields, S.A., & Kraver, M.S. (2018). The role of the therapeutic relationship in psychopharmacological treatment outcomes: A meta-analytic review. Psychiatric Services, 69, 41-47.
There is evidence to suggest that pharmacological treatments are effective for a wide range of disorders. However, a high level of adherence to taking psychotropic medications is necessary in order for them to have a chance of working. Medical interventions in general do not work well when patients are non-adherent to the regimen, and non-adherence is a significant problem in medicine. Treatment adherence is particularly problematic in those with a mental health condition. Low adherence may have to do with problems with the medications themselves, like unpleasant side effects. And low adherence also may be due to issues related to mental health impairment, like low motivation and problems with reasoning. A particular issue in mental health treatment is the manner in which patients receive the medication. Unlike some medical interventions, psychotropic medications are often taken by patients on their own and away from the clinic or hospital. In psychotherapy, we know that a good therapeutic alliance improves outcomes partly because a good alliance provides a context within which psychological interventions can work (i.e., clients may be more adherent to the treatment recommendations) and partly because the alliance itself may be therapeutic. In this meta analysis, Totura and colleagues examine if there is an association between the therapeutic alliance and mental health outcomes for patients who receive pharmacological interventions for their mental illness symptoms. Eight studies of 59 samples representing over 1,000 patients were included. Four studies were of pharmacological treatment for affective disorders, two for schizophrenia, and two for mixed diagnoses. The results indicated a statistically significant and moderate effect: z = .30 (CI=.20, .39, SE=.048, z=6.192, p=.05), such that greater therapeutic alliance predicted better mental health outcomes among patients receiving pharmacotherapy.
Higher quality of the physician-patient relationship was related to better mental health treatment outcomes for patients taking pharmacotherapy. The therapeutic alliance appears to be just as import in pharmacological treatment as it is in psychotherapy. It is possible that a good alliance with the provider may increase patient adherence, which may lead to better outcomes. It is also possible, however, that the alliance itself is therapeutic. That is, negotiating an alliance and repairing alliance tensions may lead to positive changes in patients’ ability to cope with emotions and to make the most of their social supports. The results also suggest the importance of training physicians in communication skills to improve therapeutic relationships.
Does it Matter Which Therapist a Client Gets?
Barkham, M., Lutz, W., Lambert, M., & Saxon, D. (2017). Therapist effects, effective therapists, and the law of variability. In L.G. Castonguay and C.E. Hill (Eds.) How and why are some therapists better than others? Understanding therapist effects. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Psychotherapy research has often focused on the differences between treatment types (CBT, interpersonal psychotherapy, psychodynamic therapy), which has overshadowed research on what makes for an effective therapist. Psychotherapists represent the most costly important component of psychotherapy, and only recently has research begun to catch up to the importance of therapist effects. The term “therapist effects” refers to differences between therapists (i.e., variability) in their clients’ outcomes. In this chapter, Barkham and colleagues review some of the research on effective therapists. Best estimates of therapist effects suggest that differences between therapists account for about 8% of client outcomes – which is considered a medium effect and larger than the variance accounted for by the type of therapy that a client receives. Psychotherapy research often tries to control for therapist effects by training therapists to adhere to a manual, however adherence to a manual does not substantially reduce therapist effects, and adherence is not related to patient outcomes. The implication is that which therapist a client sees matters to the client’s mental health outcomes. The best research on the topic indicates that about 20% of therapists are substantially better than the average therapist, and 20% are substantially worse than the average. (The good news is that 60% of therapists [the average] are equally and positively effective). In that study of 119 therapists, the least effective therapists had about 40% of their clients recover, whereas the most effective therapists had about 76% of their clients recover. In other words, the better therapists were almost twice as effective as the worse therapists. In a re-examination of previous data, Barkham and colleagues looked at whether other variables, like client symptom severity, played a role in therapist effects. They found that differences among therapists was higher as client baseline severity increased. That is, the gap between better and worse therapists increased when client symptoms were more severe and complex. Good therapists were better equipped to handle more complex cases.
There are important differences between therapists in their effectiveness, and this makes a difference to clients. It is particularly important for clients with more severe symptoms to be matched with more effective therapists. Previous research indicates that the level of therapist interpersonal skills (alliance, empathy, warmth, emotional expression, verbal skills) can account for significant proportion of therapist effects, and so training therapists in these interpersonal skills will improve client outcomes. Also, therapists who receive continuous reliable feedback throughout therapy about their client’s symptom levels can also drastically reduce client drop-outs and the number of clients who get worse during treatment.
Are Therapist Adherence and Competence to a Treatment Manual Related to Patient Outcomes?
The Great Psychotherapy Debate: Since in April, 2015 I review parts of The Great Psychotherapy Debate (Wampold & Imel, 2015) in the PPRNet Blog. This is the second edition of a landmark, and sometimes controversial, book that surveys the evidence for what makes psychotherapy work. You can view parts of the book in Google Books.
The conduct of psychotherapy trials almost always requires that therapists be adherent and competent in delivering a manualized therapy intervention. Treatment adherence usually refers to the extent to which a therapist used the intervention prescribed by a treatment manual. Therapist competence refers specifically to a therapist’s skill in delivering the therapy. So “competence” in the context of psychotherapy research typically refers only to performing a certain type of treatment. Wampold and Imel argue that these definitions are consistent with a Medical Model of psychotherapy that emphasizes delivering specific active ingredients of a treatment. The Contextual Model of psychotherapy, on the other hand might define a therapist as competent to the extent that the therapist is interpersonally skilled, empathic, and able to engage clients in the actions of the therapy. Wampold and Imel report on a meta analysis of 28 studies conducted by Webb and colleagues (2010) who found a small and non-significant relationship between therapist adherence and patient outcomes (r = .02), and a small and non-significant relationship between therapist competence and patient outcomes (r = .07). Type of treatment (e.g., CBT, IPT, dynamic) did not affect these associations – in other words adherence and competence were not more important to CBT than to other treatments. However, competence seemed to be more important for the treatment of depression (r = .28). Perhaps depression responds better to specific techniques. The finding that competence was generally not related to outcomes was surprising, however generally competence is narrowly defined as how well a therapist delivered the treatment not how well the therapist was able to establish a therapeutic context. Previous researchers concluded that when clients liked working with a therapist, clients got better, and therapists were rated as more competent as a result. A number of studies appear to indicate that therapist competence is really a function of the client’s characteristics not to what the therapist does. For example, clients with more severe personality problems could make a therapist appear less competent, and these clients may have poorer outcomes. If this is the case, it would create a paradoxical situation in which therapists’ appearance of competence (i.e., ability to deliver a manualized intervention well) is largely determined by the client and not by the therapist.
In contrast to the findings about adherence and competence, the therapeutic alliance is robustly related to patient outcomes. Also in contrast, the size of the alliance-outcome relationship is almost entirely due to the skills of the therapist, not the client’s characteristics. In other words, therapist competence is not a matter of whether they can do a good job of following a manual, but rather therapist competence is likely a matter of creating the right conditions (i.e., interpersonal skill, alliance, empathy, etc.) for delivering evidence-based interventions by which many clients improve. However, some therapists are better at these facilitative interpersonal skills than others.