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
Why Does Where a Patient Lives Affect Their Outcomes in Psychotherapy?
Firth, N., Saxon, D., Stiles, W. B., & Barkham, M. (2019). Therapist and clinic effects in psychotherapy: A three-level model of outcome variability. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 87(4), 345–356.
Patients vary in their outcomes from receiving psychotherapy. That is some patients receive more benefit than others or receive benefit more quickly than others. Previous research indicates that factors like higher symptom severity and socioeconomic deprivation are factors that lead to poorer outcomes. There is also evidence that some therapists are more effective than others so that 5% to 10% of patient outcomes depend on which therapist the patient sees. There is also research showing that the location of the clinic may reflect systematic differences in patient outcomes. This may be due to differences in clinic patient populations, to therapist recruiting practices, resource allocation, and accessibility. Research in population health suggest that local neighborhoods affect physical health. In this large study of over 26,000 patients receiving psychological therapy in the United Kingdom (UK) health system, Firth and colleagues estimated how much of patient outcomes were due to differences among patients, differences among therapists, and difference among clinics. Patients received person-centred, psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, or supportive therapies. Drop-out rates from therapy was 33%. Average age of patients was 38.4 years (SD = 12.94) and 69.3% were women. Most patients experienced anxiety (71.8%) and/or depression (54%). There were 462 therapists in the study working at 30 clinics throughout the UK. Up to 58.4% of patients who provided post-treatment data (i.e., completed therapy) showed reliable and clinically meaningful improvement, but there were large differences in patient improvement rates across the clinics (range: 23.4% to 75.2%) and across therapists (6.7% to 100%). Patient severity explained a large proportion of therapist differences. That is, whereas many therapists were effective with less severely symptomatic patients, relatively fewer therapists were effective with more severely symptomatic patients. Patient unemployment, location of the clinic in a more economically deprived area, and the proportion non-White patients in the area explained most of the differences between clinics. Patients who were employed and living in an economically advantaged neighborhood composed of mostly White residents had better outcomes.
We know from previous research that some therapists are more effective than others and these differences are more pronounced with more severely symptomatic patients. However, this study suggests that larger social factors like racism, systematic bias, and microaggressions also play a role in patient outcomes. Economic deprivation likely affects the level of funding and resources allocated to some clinics. Psychotherapists and funding sources need to take into account the broader socioeconomic, ethnic/racial, and geographic context in which the patient lives when planning and offering services to patients.
Is the Therapeutic Alliance Diminished by Videoconferencing Psychotherapy?
Norwood, C., Moghaddam, N.G., Malins, S., & Sabin-Farrell, R. (2018). Working alliance and outcome effectiveness in videoconferencing psychotherapy: A systematic review and noninferiority meta‐analysis. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 25, 797-808.
The working alliance is the collaboration between client and therapist on the tasks and goals of therapy, and it also includes the emotional bond. The alliance is the most researched concept in psychotherapy, and it is reliably related to good client outcomes. However, the alliance has been rarely studied in the context of videoconferencing psychotherapy (VCP). Delivering psychotherapy remotely was already gaining popularity prior to COVID-19 because of its potential to improve access to mental health care especially for people who live in remote areas. Some argue that face to face therapy might result in a higher therapeutic alliance because of the rich interpersonal cues, like eye contact and body posture that may facilitate collaboration and the bond. There is emerging evidence that VCP can be effective and that it may have comparable outcomes to face-to-face therapy. But what about the working alliance – does it develop in VCP similarly to face to face therapy? In this meta-analysis, Norwood and colleagues conducted a systematic review of the existing research on the working alliance in VCP. They found only 4 direct comparison randomized controlled studies on the topic, and on average VCP resulted in a lower working alliance compared to face to face therapy, but the difference was not statistically significant (n = 4; SMD = -0.30; 95% CI: -0.67, 0.07; p = 0.11). People who received treatment via VCP had similar levels of symptom reduction compared to those who received face to face therapy (n = 4; SMD = −0.03; 95% CI [−0.45, 0.40], p = 0.90).
With only four direct comparison randomized trials to draw from, the results of this meta-analysis remained ambiguous with regard to the therapeutic alliance. Although the difference between VCP and face to face therapy was not statistically significant, it was not ignorable – an effect size of SMD = -0.30 suggests a small advantage for face to face therapy when it comes to the alliance. However, symptom outcomes were comparable between face to face and VCP. The results suggest that therapists who use VCP during a pandemic, must pay particular attention to developing and maintaining a therapeutic alliance by collaboratively agreeing on goals and tasks of therapy, and by focusing on establishing an affective bond with patients despite the limited nonverbal cues available with online psychotherapy.
Once-Weekly or Twice-Weekly Sessions of Psychotherapy?
Once-Weekly or Twice-Weekly Sessions of Psychotherapy?
Bruijniks, S., Lemmens, L., Hollon, S.D., Peeters, F.P., ….Huibers, M.J. (2020). The effects of once- versus twice-weekly sessions on psychotherapy outcomes in depressed patients. The British Journal of Psychiatry, doi: 10.1192/bjp.2019.265. [Epub ahead of print].
Some research has suggested that the number of sessions per week, not the total number of sessions received, is correlated with patient outcomes. It is possible that higher session frequency per week might lead clients to better recall the content of sessions, which in turn may lead to better treatment outcomes. Or perhaps, higher frequency of sessions might lead to a better therapeutic alliance and higher client motivation thus leading to better outcomes. Although previous research has suggested that more sessions per week is better, no study has ever directly assessed this issue until now. Bruijniks and colleagues conducted a large randomized controlled trial of 200 adults with depression seen across nine specialized clinics in the Netherlands. Researchers randomly assigned clients to receive either cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) for a maximum of 20 sessions. Half of the clients in either type of therapy received the 20 sessions on a twice a week basis, and half of clients in each type of therapy received the 20 sessions on a once a week basis. The therapies were manualized, therapists were trained and supervised, and clients were carefully selected to meet criteria for depression. More patients dropped out of weekly (31%) compared to twice weekly (17%) therapy. There were no differences between CBT and IPT in depression outcomes. However, there was a significant effect of session frequency on patient outcomes in favor of twice weekly sessions (d = 0.55). Using a strict criteria of “recovery” from depression at 6 months post treatment, 19.6% of patients receiving once weekly therapy “recovered” compared to 29.5% of patients receiving twice weekly therapy.
This large multi-site study has intriguing implications for practice. More frequent sessions per week may result in significantly better patient outcomes regardless of the type of therapy offered. Not surprisingly, IPT and CBT were equally effective. However, their effectiveness was limited in that only between 20% to 30% of patients recovered from depression. This finding is similar to the results previous trials, and speaks to the limitations of time-limited manual-based therapies for depression. Nevertheless, it appears that more frequent therapy per week may be a better option for some clients.
The Interactive Nature of Countertransference
The Interactive Nature of Countertransference
Connery, A. L., & Murdock, N. L. (2019). An interactive view of countertransference: Differentiation of self and client presentation. Psychotherapy, 56(2), 181–192.
Countertransference in psychotherapy is ubiquitous – it is experienced by every therapist with many clients. An early supervisor of mine once quipped, “You might not be interested in countertransference, but it is certainly interested in you.” Countertransference refers to a therapist’s emotional, cognitive, behavioral responses that are triggered by a client, and that are caused in part by the therapist’s unresolved conflicts, sensitivities, or vulnerabilities. So, it is useful to consider countertransference as a result of an interaction between client factors and therapist factors. Research indicates that therapists’ experience of countertransference is related to negative outcomes in their clients, and that identification and management of countertransference results in better client outcomes. In this study, Connery and Murdoch posited that therapists who had lower levels of differentiation of self would experience higher countertransference reactions. That is, those therapists with lower ability to balance the inherent pulls of separateness and togetherness in interpersonal relations, and who had more difficulty maintaining a sense of self in intimate relationships would be more susceptible to the interpersonal pressures inherent in some psychotherapy relationships. The authors conducted a clever study in which 262 practicing psychotherapists of varying professions, orientations, experience, and ages completed some questionnaires. Then the researchers randomly assigned the therapists either to watch 10 video clips simulating a hostile and dominant patient (i.e., with features of narcissism or paranoia) or to watch 10 video clips simulating a hostile and submissive patient (i.e., with features of passive-aggression). After viewing the videos, researchers asked the therapists to describe their own emotional reactions to the client they viewed using a questionnaire that rates countertransference. In general, therapists tended to respond with over-involvement to the videos of hostile and submissive clients. However, those therapists with more problems with maintaining their sense of self in close relationships were particularly susceptible to feelings of over-involvement with these clients. On the other hand, therapists in general tended to respond with more under-involvement to the videos of hostile and dominant clients. However, those therapists who had more problems with maintaining a sense of self in relationships were not any more susceptible to these countertransference reactions compared to therapists with better differentiation of self.
Differentiation of self indicates the capacity to develop a healthy balance of interpersonal relatedness and self-differentiation that allows one to balance emotional reactions and rational thought when under stress. This study suggests that therapists’ ability to manage closeness and distance in relationships affects the intensity with which they experience countertransference reactions towards clients who have passive-aggressive qualities. This provide further evidence that not only client characteristics, but also some therapist vulnerabilities play a role in determining countertransference reactions. The findings point to the importance of continued peer supervision and of personal therapy for psychotherapists so that they may be less susceptible to the stress inherent in their work, and so that their clients can achieve optimal outcomes.
Drop-out From Using Smart Phone Apps for Depression is High
Torous, J., Lipschitz, J., Ng, M., & Firth, J. (2020). Dropout rates in clinical trials of smartphone apps for depressive symptoms: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 263, 413-419.
Depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide, and yet more than 50% of people do not have access to adequate therapy. One solution might be to provide individuals with smartphone apps to help screen, monitor, or provide treatment. Smart phones are ubiquitous, and depression apps are one of the most downloaded categories of apps by the public. Research seems to suggest that smartphone apps provide some positive results for members of the public, but these findings are compromised by the high drop-out rates reported in the primary studies. Further, one study found that although many people download the apps, only about 4% actually use them. Whereas smartphone apps appear attractive to the consumer, very few actually make use of and therefore benefit from them. In this systematic review, Torous and colleagues conduct a meta-analysis of drop-out rates from studies that test the use of smart phone apps. They found 18 independent studies representing data from 3,336 participants who received a psychological intervention for depression via a cell phone app, or who were in a placebo control condition. A total of 22 different apps were tested in the studies. Initially, the pooled drop-out rate from the depression app treatment arms appeared to be about 26.2% (95% C.I.=11.34% to 46.75%), which would be in line with average drop-out rates from randomized controlled trials of face to face psychotherapy. But, the authors noted two things. First, the drop-out rate from the placebo control conditions (14.2%; 95% C.I. = 8.236 to 23.406) was almost half as high as that found for the apps. Second, through some sophisticated statistical analyses, they found evidence of “publication bias” in this research area. This means that a number of studies testing these apps likely were completed but never published (i.e., these might be studies funded by an app manufacturer that demonstrated negative findings or high drop-out rates). When the authors statistically adjusted for publication bias, they found that the actual drop-out rate from the apps was about 47.8%. That is, almost half of users did not complete or dropped out of the studies. There were no differences in drop-out between types of interventions (CBT, mindfulness, or others), and studies with larger sample sizes (i.e., better quality studies) had higher drop-out rates.
Although smartphone apps appear really attractive and may be potentially useful as an adjunct to face to face psychotherapy for depression, their utility is plagued by extremely low usage rates (4%) and high drop-out rates from studies (almost 50%). Leading writers and researchers define psychotherapy as primarily a healing relationship that also includes specific interventions. The key ingredient is the human relationship. Depressed or otherwise troubled individuals cannot (because of feeling demoralized) or will not interact with a machine for healing. One way or another, when it comes to smartphone apps, depressed individuals are voting with their feet. Given these findings, health care providers should consider the ethics of giving a depressed individual only e-therapy as the primary mode of treatment.
What Does a Good Outcome Mean to Patients?
De Smet, M. M., Meganck, R., De Geest, R., Norman, U. A., Truijens, F., & Desmet, M. (2020). What “good outcome” means to patients: Understanding recovery and improvement in psychotherapy for major depression from a mixed-methods perspective. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 67(1), 25–39.
Many researchers consider the randomized controlled trial (RCT) as the best research design for testing medical and psychological treatments. However, critics of the design point to its limitations. For example, in order to collect homogenous samples of patients, researchers may exclude those with complex comorbidities. As a result, patient samples in RCTs may not represent patients one might see in real clinical practice. Also, researchers, and not patients, tend to define the meaning of what is a “good outcome” in these studies. It is possible that researchers and patients may not share the same definition of what it means to have a good outcome from psychotherapy. One key statistical and measurement method that researchers use to define outcomes is the reliable change index, which calculates the degree of change on a symptom scale from pre-treatment to post-treatment relative to the unreliability of the measurement. Using this method, researchers classify patients as “recovered” (reliably changed and passing a clinical cut-off score), “improved” (reliably changed but remaining in the clinical range), “not improved”, or “deteriorated”. However, this commonly used approach does not indicate whether the changes are actually meaningful to the patients. In this study, De Smet and colleagues interviewed patients from a randomized controlled trial of time-limited psychotherapy (16 sessions of CBT vs psychodynamic therapy) for depression who were classified as “recovered” or “improved” at post-treatment based on the reliable change index of a commonly used depression self-report scale. The authors asked how the patients experienced their depression symptom outcome, and what changes the patients valued since the start of therapy. In the original treatment trial of 100 patients, 28 were categorized as “recovered” and 19 patients were categorized as “improved”. During the post-therapy interview, the “recovered” and “improved” patients typically reported a certain degree of improvement in their symptoms. However, the patients categorized as “improved” reported that their gains were unstable from day to day, some reported having relapsed, and half did not feel that they improved at all. None of the “recovered” patients indicated that they felt “cured” of depression. Patients identified three domains of change that they experienced and valued. First, they felt empowered – that is, they had increased self-confidence, greater independence, and new coping skills. Second, they found a personal balance – that is, they had better relationships with loved ones, felt calmer, and had greater insight into their problems. Third, patients tended to identify ongoing struggles despite positive changes in the other domains – that is, certain key problems remained unresolved. “Improved” patients, and even some in the “recovered” group, indicated that their core difficulties had not been altered by the therapy.
Although measurement of symptom change can give a clinician a general sense of how the patient is doing with regard to their symptoms and whether the patient is on track, such measurement may not capture the complexity of patients’ experiences of the therapy and any broader changes they may value. Patients in this trial, especially those classified as “improved”, had varied experiences. Aside from symptom reduction, clinicians should assess what their patients may value, such as: better relationships, greater self-understanding, more self-confidence, and feeling calmer. Most patients, including some who “recovered”, felt that they were engaged in an ongoing struggle, even after therapy. These findings suggest that addressing some of the core difficulties patients face may require longer term psychotherapy.