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
Clients’ Experiences of Psychotherapy
Levitt, H.M., Pomerville, A., & Surace, F.I. (2016). A qualitative meta-analysis examining clients’ experiences in psychotherapy: A new agenda. Psychological Bulletin. Online First Publication, April 28, 2016.
Much of psychotherapy research over the past several decades has focused on therapy outcomes, with the general conclusion that outcomes are equivalent across major psychotherapy orientations. Some of the effects of psychotherapy can be explained by relational factors (e.g., therapeutic alliance). There is also a growing and interesting line of research about therapist variables and therapist effects (see this month’s PPRNet blog on differences between therapists’ outcomes in a large UK sample). Many experts argue that client effects and characteristics account for the largest amount of variance in therapy outcomes. That is, who clients are and what experiences they have are the largest determinants of whether psychotherapy will be helpful. However the client’s experience is often neglected in psychotherapy research reviews. Levitt and colleagues conducted a qualitative meta analysis of qualitative studies of clients’ experiences in psychotherapy. Qualitative research typically involves interviewing clients about their experiences in therapy and coding the transcripts of these interviews. Methods of synthesizing and categorizing themes from client narratives, such as the grounded theory method and thematic analysis, create a rich source of understanding about how clients experience change in psychotherapy. Levitt and colleagues applied qualitative methods to synthesize 109 qualitative studies of over 1400 clients as a way of analysing this research. Six clusters or themes emerged from their qualitative meta analysis: (1) clients experienced therapy as a process of identifying and understanding personal patterns; (2) clients who felt understood and had their experiences validated were able to internalize the therapist’s voice; (3) clients experienced the structure of therapy (spacing of sessions and time allotted to sessions) and therapist expertise as generating credibility for the therapy, but also at times the structure reduced clients’ experience of therapeutic relationship’s authenticity; (4) clients experienced an inherent power differential with therapists that was sometimes compounded by differences in race, gender, and class; (5) clients played a major role in the therapeutic process, and clients felt pleased when they were invited to take the lead; (6) clients’ experiences of being cared-for supported their ability to recognize maladaptive patterns and address unmet vulnerable needs.
This qualitative meta analysis highlights the important role played by the client’s experience and by the therapy context in promoting good outcomes. The results suggested that better outcomes may be achieved when: (1) therapists encourage clients’ curiosity about their cognitive, emotional and relational patterns; (2) therapists engage in an accepting and caring relationship in order to help clients decrease their defensiveness about vulnerable topics; (3) therapists maintain the therapeutic structure in order to increase clients’ sense of confidence in the process; (4) therapists explicitly acknowledge power differences and repair alliance ruptures; (5) therapists encourage clients to take an active role in therapy as a means of self-healing; and (6) therapists regularly check with clients about the fit of interventions, in-session needs, and treatment goals.
Is it Feasible to Have a Nationally Funded Psychotherapy Service?
Community and Mental Health Team, Health and Social Care Information Centre (2015). Psychological therapies; Annual report on the use of IAPT services: England 2014/15.
There have been calls from mental health professional organizations and by the media to provide publicly funded psychotherapy in Canada. Rates of common mental disorders in Canada are high, such that about 20% of the population will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. In 1998, the estimated direct and indirect economic cost of mental illness in Canada was $7.9 billion (all figures are in Canadian dollars). Current estimates of costs to fund a public psychotherapy service in Canada may be about $1 billion to $2.8 billion – which far outweighs the cost. Most outpatient psychotherapy in Canada is provided by professionals in private practice who charge somewhere between $100 and $200 per session, costing Canadians nearly $1 billion per year. Some people are fortunate to have workplace insurance that covers some but not all of the costs, but most people in Canada do not have insurance and so they pay out of pocket or they go untreated. Research shows us that approximately 13 to 18 sessions are needed for 50% of clients to get better with psychotherapy. Which means that even with an insurance plan, many Canadians who need psychotherapy will find it to be a financial burden. Since 2008, the National Health Service in England implemented the Improving Access to Psychotherapies (IAPT) services to provide publicly funded psychotherapy to the population. The psychological treatments provided through IAPT are evidence-based (e.g., CBT, interpersonal psychotherapy, brief dynamic psychotherapy for depression). For mild to moderate problems, individuals get low intensity interventions first (i.e., self help, internet based interventions), followed by more intensive psychotherapy if needed. Treatment outcomes are measured from pre- to post-treatment with valid standardized measures of depression and anxiety. At post-treatment, patients are categorized as reliably deteriorated, not changed, improved, and recovered. The goal of the IAPT is to achieve 50% recovery rates among patients. In their online 2014-15 annual report, the IAPT service reported that it treated over 400,000 patients in that year. 44.8% of patients were rated as reliably recovered – that is over 180,000 mentally ill patients improved and no longer had a mental illness. Reliable improvement was seen in 60.8% of patients – this included recovered patients plus those who still had a disorder but were feeling significantly better than when they started. Recovery was highest for people 65 years and older (57.8%). Rates of recovery were similar for depression (44.6%) and anxiety (47.8%) disorders, and between men and women. Waiting times for treatment was less than 28 days for 66.0% of patients.
The experience in England with the IAPT is instructive for Canada. The IAPT service provides evidence-based psychological therapies within a publicly funded national health service. The IAPT approached its target of 50% of patients recovering from mental illness, and over 60% of patients were reliably improved. Waiting times were low for most patients. Given the experience in England’s National Health Service, the implementation of a national strategy for psychotherapy appears to be feasible and effective. Will political leaders in Canada be able to see the financial and human value of publicly funded psychotherapy?
What Therapists Can Do To Improve Their Patients’ Outcomes
Wampold, B.E. & Imel, Z.E. (2015). The great psychotherapy debate (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
The Great Psychotherapy Debate: Starting 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
In the concluding chapter of their book, Wampold and Imel discuss the evidence and strategies that therapists can use to improve patient outcomes. As indicated in previous PPRNet Blogs, Wampold and Imel concluded that the differences between specific treatment approaches is small. In other words, Wampold and Imel argue that there is no good evidence that one bona fide psychotherapy is more effective than another for most disorders. By “bona fide” treatments, they mean psychotherapy that: provides the client with a plausible theory/explanation of the disorder, delivers a structured intervention based on the plausible theory, and is offered by an effective therapist. The authors also found that contextual factors (e.g., therapeutic alliance, therapist empathy, client expectations) accounted for a sizeable proportion of patient outcomes. A key element in this understanding of effective therapy is the role of the therapist. The authors reviewed various studies and meta analyses that showed that therapists differ widely in their outcomes and in their ability to establish a therapeutic alliance. Unfortunately, therapists tend to be overly-optimistic about their clients’ outcomes. Therapists often do not have quality data on their clients’ progress, and the complexities of the therapeutic work makes it difficult for therapists to keep in mind all aspects of the therapy that is helpful or not helpful to clients. For example, some therapists may be good at establishing an alliance, but they may not be so good at providing a viable treatment structure. Other therapists may be highly empathic with clients who have moderately severe symptoms, but the same therapists may not respond as empathically with more difficult clients. Outcome or process monitoring (i.e., providing therapists with reliable information about the ongoing status of patient symptoms or about the quality of the therapeutic relationship) provides an evidence-based aid in helping therapists to improve their clients’ outcomes.
Regardless of the type of psychotherapy they use, therapists are responsible for achieving good outcomes for their clients. This includes continually developing therapeutic skills over time. There is some evidence that a reflective attitude towards one’s psychotherapy practice is helpful. Unfortunately, therapists may not be continually improving or reflecting on their practice. This is indicated by research showing that trainees and interns appear to be as competent as experienced clinicians. Therapists need quality information about their clients in order to improve their own practice and clients’ outcomes. But psychotherapy practice is complex, the therapeutic relationship is multifaceted, and clients are variable in their presenting issues and life experiences. All of these make it difficult for any therapist to make accurate decisions in therapy. Progress or process monitoring (i.e., continually measuring outcomes and relationship processes with a psychometrically valid instrument), may be one way for therapists to receive high quality feedback about patient progress in order to improve their psychotherapy practice.
The Enduring Effects of Psychodynamic Treatments
Kivlighan, D.M., Goldberg, S.B., Abbas, M., Pace, B.T., …Wampold, B.E. (2015). The enduring effects of psychodynamic treatments vis-à-vis alternative treatments: A multilevel longitudinal meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 40, 1-14.
There is a great deal of evidence that indicates uniform efficacy of a variety of psychotherapies for many common disorders. For example, in the July 2014 PPRNet Blog, I reviewed a meta-analysis comparing 7 psychotherapies for depression indicating no differences between the various treatments in terms of patient outcomes. Nevertheless proponents of cognitive behavioural therapy have claimed superiority to alternative treatments for decades. On the other hand proponents of psychodynamic therapies have argued that these treatments focus on personality change rather than symptoms, and so benefits of psychodynamic therapies will be longer lasting. In this meta analysis, Kivlighan and colleagues put these claims to the test. They selected studies in which a psychodynamic therapy was compared to one or more alternative treatment. Both the psychodynamic therapy and the alternative (most often CBT) had to be judged as “bona fide” therapies by independent raters (i.e., they had to be therapies that were delivered in a manner in which they could be expected to be effective by clients and therapists). Outcomes not only included specific symptoms (e.g., depression), but also non-targeted outcomes (e.g., improved self esteem in a study of treatment of anxiety), and personality outcomes. Effect sizes for outcomes were assessed at post-treatment and also at follow-ups. Twenty five studies directly comparing psychodynamic and non-psychodynamic therapies were included, representing 1690 patients. At post treatment, no significant differences were found between psychodynamic and non-psychodynamic treatments on targeted outcomes, non-targeted outcomes, and personality measures (all gs < .10). There was also no significant or meaningful effect of time to follow up on outcomes, indicating no differences between treatment types at any of the follow up periods.
Psychodynamic and non-psychodynamic treatments were equally effective at post treatment and at follow ups for all outcomes, including personality variables. This challenges the belief that psychodynamic treatments uniquely affect personality and have longer lasting effects compared to other treatments. It also challenges the notion that CBT (by far the most common comparison treatment) is a superior therapy for patient outcomes. Pan-theoretical psychotherapy factors (client contributions, expectations, therapeutic alliance) may be more promising factors in understanding the long term benefits of psychotherapy.
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Implementing Routine Outcome Monitoring in Clinical Practice
Boswell, J.F., Kraus, D.R., Miller, S.D., & Lambert, M.J. (2015). Implementing routine outcome monitoring in clinical practice: Benefits, challenges, and solutions. Psychotherapy Research, 25, 6-19.
Routine outcome monitoring (ROM) refers to: (1) systematically assessing patient outcomes at every session, (2) comparing patient scores and progress to a database of similar patients, (3) using algorithms or decision tools to identify patients who are not improving or deteriorating, (4) providing regular and immediate feedback to therapists about the patient, and (5) in some cases providing clinical decision aids to help therapists improve outcomes for patients who are not improving or who are deteriorating. Boswell and colleagues review the research related to ROM. Generally, about 30% to 50% of patients do not respond to treatment, and 8% of patients tend to get worse during treatment. Therapists tend to overestimate their patients’ improvement, and so therapists may not always identify patients who do not respond or get worse. Therapists may need assessment aids to help them make decisions about patient progress and treatment. Boswell and colleagues point out that ROM have a proven ability to predict treatment failure and other negative outcomes. In a meta analysis of over 6,000 patients, the patients at risk of a negative outcome whose therapist received ROM feedback prior to every session were better off than 70% of at-risk patients whose therapist received no feedback. When therapists are provided feedback and suggestions for interventions, their patients had almost four times higher odds of achieving clinically significant improvement. Boswell and colleagues list a number of barriers that psychotherapists and agencies experience to implementing ROM in their practices. Many therapists are not aware of or have no experience with ROM, and so they may not be aware of its benefits to their practice and patients. Time and money are two practical issues that may arise. This type of assessment is not always reimbursed and the average clinician may feel that they do not have enough time to reflect on routine assessment and feedback so as to reconsider their interventions. Agencies may not understand the value of allocating resources to this type of testing (although medically oriented agencies would not hesitate to order a blood test or an x-ray). Finally, some therapists might experience ROM as intrusive, as impeding the therapeutic relationship, and as a means for an agency to control therapist decisions.
Routine outcome monitoring (ROM) has clear benefits to patients, therapists, and agencies. To overcome barriers, therapists and agencies could implement ROM as part of routine clinical care, and advertise this as an evidence-based practice that will benefit prospective patients. Clients generally appreciate knowing that they will receive the best possible care. ROM can enhance the therapeutic relationship if it is presented to clients as a collaborative endeavor. For example, if a patient is not improving or is deteriorating, therapists can discuss this with patients as well as a plan to alter aspects of the treatment in order to improve the prospects for a better outcome. Therapists can choose from a number of possible ROM options to best tailor the approach to their clients based on cost, time, and relevance. Currently, there are several outcome monitoring systems available to clinicians including: the Partners for Change Outcome Management System (PCOMS), the Treatment Outcome Package (TOPS), the Clinical Outcomes in Routine Evaluation (CORE), and the Outcome Questionnaire (OQ) system.
Common Factors in Psychotherapy: What Are They and Why Are They Important?
Laska, K. M., Gurman, A. S., & Wampold, B. E. (2014). Expanding the lens of evidence-based practice in psychotherapy: A common factors perspective. Psychotherapy, 51(4), 467-481.
In this wide ranging review of the Common Factors (CF) perspective in psychotherapy, Laska and colleagues tackle the complex issues of defining CF and describing the evidence. The authors argue that CF in psychotherapy are not a vague set of ideas that fit under the label of “non-specific factors” or “relationship factors”. They also state that there is an unnecessary dichotomy between the concepts of empirically supported treatments (EST) and CF. In EST, specific and brief manualized therapies for specific disorders are tested in highly controlled randomized trials. ESTs purport that efficacious psychotherapies contain specific techniques based on an articulated theory of the disorder, and a specific mechanism of change for that disorder (e.g., depression is partly caused by depressogenic beliefs and so CBT for depression specifically targets cognitive distortions). There are published lists of ESTs for many disorders. However, Laska and colleagues argue that there is little evidence of the specificity of these treatments. For example, in dismantling studies an intervention like CBT for depression is compared to a dismantled version that removes an “active ingredient” [e.g., by providing only behavioral activation as an intervention], with little difference in patient outcomes between the full and dismantled versions. Further, for a number of disorders, several therapies based on very different theories of the disorder and of change are equally effective. In contrast to the EST approach, Laska and colleagues describe the CF approach which focuses on factors that are necessary and sufficient for patient change across psychotherapies, such as: (1) an emotional bond between client and therapist, (2) a healing setting for therapy, (3) a therapist who provides a theoretically and culturally relevant explanation for emotional distress, (4) an adaptive explanation that is acceptable to clients, and (5) procedures that lead clients to do something that is positive and helpful. Nevertheless, CF does not provide therapists with a license to do whatever they want without considering the evidence of a therapy’s efficacy. Rather CF does encourage therapists to make use of specific factors found in ESTs and to practice with a purpose. In support of the importance of CF, Laska and colleagues review the evidence from a number of meta analyses that show that CF (i.e., alliance, empathy, collaboration, positive regard, genuineness, therapist effects) each account for 5% to 11.5% of patient outcomes. These are moderate effects. Specific ingredients of psychotherapies or differences between ESTs account for 0% to 1% of patient outcomes, which represent small effects.
An excessive focus or reliance on empirically supported therapies (EST) may unnecessarily limit what the profession and funders consider to be evidence-based practice. A common factors (CF) approach provides scientific evidence for effective therapeutic practices that are necessary in addition to the specific treatments found in lists of ESTs. To be effective, therapists should be able to: (1) develop a therapeutic alliance and repair ruptures to the alliance, (2) provide a safe context for the therapy, (3) be able to communicate sound psychological theory for the client’s distress based on evidence, (4) suggest a course of action that is based on evidence, and (5) conduct therapy based on established theories of distress and healing. Laska and colleagues argue that systematic patient progress monitoring and ongoing monitoring of the therapeutic alliance may be an effective method of quality improvement of therapists’ outcomes. Progress monitoring may provide therapists with information about areas for continuing education to improve their patients’ outcomes.