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
Is Therapist Effectiveness a Stable Characteristic?
Kraus, D. R., Bentley, J. H., Alexander, P. C., Boswell, J. F., Constantino, M. J., Baxter, E. E., & Castonguay, L. G. (2016). Predicting therapist effectiveness from their own practice-based evidence. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 84(6), 473-483.
There is lots of evidence that there are differences between therapists in their patients’ outcomes. Some studies estimate that 5% to 7% of patient outcomes can be attributed to differences between therapists’ abilities and style of delivering treatment. But most of these studies measured outcomes only once, and so they could not estimate if therapist effects are stable across time. Further, many of these studies used only a global measure of patient distress as an outcome and did not measure domain-specific outcomes (e.g., depression, anxiety, mania, alcohol dependence, etc.). In this study by Krauss and colleagues, 59 therapists who treated 3,540 patients were included. Therapists had on average 10 years of experience and were from a variety of professions (psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, counsellors etc.). The settings included mental health clinics, independent practice, hospitals, and others. The authors went to some effort to control for case-mix variables such as client problem difficulty, length of treatment, caseload size, and other variables. Client outcomes were measured for 12 different domains ranging from depression to sexual dysfunction to substance abuse. First, outcomes were assessed for 30 patients of each therapist, and then these were compared to outcomes of the same therapist’s next 30 patients. Therapists were classified as “exceptional”, “average”, or “below average” based on their patients’ outcomes. Fifty-seven percent of therapists who were rated as exceptional with the first 30 patients were likely to remain exceptional or above average with the next 30 patients. In other words, effective therapists tended to remain effective over time. Therapists had better patient outcomes when it came to depression, suicidality, and substance abuse, but therapists tended not to have as good outcomes when it came to mania, and sexual functioning.
Effective therapists tend to remain effective over time for particular client problem areas. However, therapists are seldom effective for more than 4 or 5 client presenting problems, and less than 10 % of therapists are effective with all client problem areas. Therefore patients with differing problems are likely to achieve better or worse outcomes depending on the particular therapist and his or her strengths. Therapists can regularly assess patient outcomes and use that information to help with continuing education to improve their practice for a particular problem area.
Are Therapists Uniformly Effective Across Patient Outcomes?
Nissen-Lie, H. A., Goldberg, S. B., Hoyt, W. T., Falkenström, F., Holmqvist, R., Nielsen, S. L., & Wampold, B. E. (2016). Are therapists uniformly effective across patient outcome domains? A study of therapist effectiveness in two different treatment contexts. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Advance online publication.
What characterizes more or less effective therapists? Are some therapists more effective for certain types of client mental health problems? In this study by Nissen-Lie and colleagues the authors look at whether therapists are skilled across patient problem domains. They conducted two studies with over 6000 patients and almost 200 therapists. Patients were assessed with common outcome measures of mental health domains that included: social functioning, work functioning, relationship functioning and symptom distress. Therapists included psychologists and social work professionals (70%) and trainees (30%) who saw at least 10 patients each. Theoretical orientations ranged from CBT, psychodynamic, and supportive psychotherapy. Patients were symptomatic at the start of therapy and primarily had problems with anxiety and depression. Patient symptoms on average improved so that psychotherapy had a moderate to large effect. Therapists did not differ in caseload mix regarding client severity. The authors reported that the client mental health domains (i.e., symptom severity, work functioning, social functioning, and interpersonal functioning) were relatively distinct or unrelated areas (i.e., the domains were largely uncorrelated). The authors then calculated change scores for each client domain area and used these change scores in a multilevel factor analysis. They wanted to see if a therapist’s clients achieved greater change in one client domain versus in another client domain. The results showed that if clients of a therapist changed in one domain (e.g., depression) then that outcome was highly related to change in another domain (e.g., interpersonal functioning). In other words, if a therapist was effective (or ineffective) in reducing client symptoms, then that therapist was also likely effective (or ineffective) in reducing, work, social, and relationship problems.
The results support the notion of therapist uniformity in terms of client outcome domains. In other words effective therapists tend to be effective with many types of client problems (but perhaps not all client problems – see my blog this month of the Kraus et al. (2016) study). The authors argue that effective therapists have three key qualities: flexibility in adapting treatments to clients, sensitivity to differences between clients, and responsiveness to clients’ reactions to therapeutic interventions. That is, effective therapists are willing and able to self correct when required.
Do Psychotherapists Improve with Experience?
Goldberg, S.B., Rousmaniere, T., Miller, S.D., Whipple, J., Nielsen, S.L., Hoyt, W.T., & Wampold, B.E. (2016). Do psychotherapists improve with time and experience? A longitudinal analysis of outcomes in a clinical setting. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63, 1-11.
Do therapists get better in providing psychotherapy as they gain more experience? This is a long standing question in psychotherapy, and most studies that compare therapists of different experience levels have not provided encouraging findings. This large longitudinal study in a practice setting by Goldberg and colleagues is unique because they follow therapists over a number of years during their careers. That is, the authors do not focus on outcome differences between therapists with different levels of experience, but rather they see if a therapist improves over time as the therapist accrues experience. Data were collected on 170 therapists and 6,591 patients over 18 years in a large practice in the U.S. Patients were distressed adults who attended an average of 8 sessions (range = 3 to 153) across 13 weeks. Over the 18 years of the study, on average therapists saw 39 patients, saw their first patient of the study after their 5th year post graduate school, and had been working at the practice for about 5 years. On average patients got better, so that their psychological symptoms declined significantly over the course of treatment (i.e., 50% reliably improved). These rates of improvement are similar to benchmarks set in clinical trials. Contrary to expectations, therapists tended to have slightly poorer patient outcomes as the therapists gained experience. This result remained significant even when patient baseline severity, therapist caseload size, and other factors were controlled. However, more experienced therapists tended to have fewer early unplanned terminations (< 2 sessions) than less experienced therapists.
This is the first large longitudinal study that followed therapists over several years of their career. Therapists became less effective over time, although the magnitude of the deterioration was very small. At the very least, one can say that patients did not achieve better outcomes as their therapists became more experienced. The authors note that the results of this study are in contrast to a large therapist survey in which most practitioners reported that their skills improved with passing time, and in contrast to another study in which therapists tended to over-estimate their effectiveness and under-recognize failing cases. Ways for therapists to improve their skills and patient outcomes might include: engaging in regular progress monitoring, targeted learning of fundamental therapeutic skills, training with standardized patients, and setting aside time for reflection and clinical consultation.
Patients’ Experiences of Clinicians’ Crying During Psychotherapy
Tritt, A., Kelly, J., & Waller, G. (2015). Patients’ experiences of clinicians’ crying during psychotherapy for eating disorders. Psychotherapy, 52(3), 373-380.
Psychotherapy can be an emotionally intensive experience for both patients and therapists. In a large survey, more than 70% of therapists reported having cried in therapy, and 30% cried during the past month. Therapists who cried almost always saw the experience as positive or neutral (99.2%) for the patient and the therapeutic relationship. Do clients feel the same way about therapists who cry? In this study, Tritt and colleagues surveyed 188 adult patients with an eating disorder who were recently in psychotherapy. Of those, 107 (56.9%) reported that their therapist had cried during therapy. There was no association between frequency of therapist crying and therapist age, patient diagnosis, or type of psychotherapy (i.e., manual-based or not). Therapists who cried a moderate amount were seen by clients as having a positive demeanor (i.e., happy, firm, consistent), whereas therapists who cried more extremely were rated by clients as having a more negative demeanor (i.e., anxious, angry, bored). If therapists who cried were generally perceived by clients to have a positive demeanor, then therapist crying had a positive impact on therapy. That is, clients reported a greater respect for the therapist, greater willingness to express emotions, and higher willingness to undertake therapy in the future. However, if therapists who cried were generally perceived by clients to have a negative demeanor, then therapist crying had a negative impact on therapy. That is, clients were less willing to express emotions in therapy and to undertake therapy in the future. Further, if the therapist who cried was rated as having a negative demeanor, the client experienced more self blame, assumed that there was something wrong in the therapist’s life, and that the therapist and client did not share the same perspective on the client’s life and treatment.
This small but unique and interesting survey sheds some light on clients’ experiences of therapists who cry during therapy. More than half of clients experienced their therapist crying during therapy. In contrast to surveys of therapists who tend to evaluate therapist crying as exclusively positive or neutral, this survey found that many but not all clients experienced therapist crying as positive. It depends on how the client perceives the therapist as a person. Therapists who are seen by clients as happy, firm, and consistent may assume that patients will experience their crying as a positive indicator of the therapeutic relationship. However, therapists who are seen by clients as anxious, bored, or angry cannot assume that clients will see their tears as being positive for therapy.
Deliberate Practice in Highly Effective Therapists
Chow, D. L., Miller, S. D., Seidel, J. A., Kane, R. T., Thornton, J. A., & Andrews, W. P. (2015). The role of deliberate practice in the development of highly effective psychotherapists. Psychotherapy, 52(3), 337.
In 2014, Tracey and colleagues caused a stir when they claimed that there was no evidence of expertise in psychotherapy (see my July, 2014 blog). They defined expertise as increased quality of performance that is gained with additional experience – and they concluded that psychotherapy research has not provided evidence that therapist performance improves with experience. The issue is important because differences between therapists account for over 5% of patient outcomes. This seems small, but it is larger than variance in outcomes accounted for by the use of empirically supported treatments (0% - 4%), and almost as large as the variance accounted for by client-rated alliance (5% - 15%). Across a wide variety of professions (e.g., music, medicine, chess, sports), professionals’ engagement in deliberate practice results in improvement and superior performance. However, there is little evidence of this in psychotherapy. In this article by Chow and colleagues, the authors look specifically at “deliberate practice” defined as individualized training activities to improve one’s performance through repetition and refinement. To be effective, deliberate practice has to be focused on achieving specific targets and guided by conscious monitoring of outcomes over a long period of time. The authors collected a sample of 69 therapists who worked across a number of organizations and practice areas, and these therapists provided data related to 4,850 patients. Seventeen of the 69 therapists who treated 1,632 clients also provided data on professional development activities. Therapists were multidisciplinary (i.e., counsellors, psychologists, marital therapists, social workers, psychotherapists) with an average of over 8 years of experience, who worked mainly in private practice or within the national health service in the U.K., and who primarily treated adult patients with depression or anxiety disorders. Patient outcomes were measured repeatedly with a valid standardized scale, and deliberate practice was self reported by therapists using a measure that asked about the frequency and time therapists engaged in 25 activities outside of work aimed at improving therapeutic skills. On average, clients improved by the end of treatment and the effect was large (d = 1.22). As expected therapists differed in their patient outcomes (i.e., some therapists were reliably more effective than others). Therapist demographic variables, theoretical orientation, years of experience, and practice setting were not related to patient outcomes. However, the amount of time in deliberate practice activities was associated with a reduction in client distress. Compared to the less effective therapists (2.62 hrs/wk in deliberate practice), the best performing therapists (7.39 hrs/wk in deliberate practice) spent about 2.81 times more time on deliberate practice. Therapists rated the following deliberate practice activities as the most relevant to their patients’ outcomes: reviewing challenging cases, attending training workshops, reflecting on past sessions, and reflecting on what to do in future sessions.
Although this is a single study with a relatively small sample of therapists, it is one of those rare studies to assess the effects of therapist deliberate practice on patient outcomes. As is the case with other professions, reviewing one’s performance can play an important role in identifying errors, altering course, and remediating problems. As Tracey and colleagues indicated, therapists need good quality information in order to learn from their errors and make adjustments so that clients can improve. Quality information might be available from progress monitoring (i.e., continuous feedback to therapists about client outcomes), which has been shown to improve client outcomes especially for at-risk cases. Chow and colleagues go further to suggest targeted learning by using standardized clients within training and supervision contexts. Deliberate practice is not only for newer or less experienced therapists, since experienced therapists also vary in their ability to engage and help clients. Highly effective therapists spend more time engaging in activities outside of their practice specifically aimed at improving their performance.
Therapist Emotional Responses are Associated with Patient Personality
Colli, A., Tanzilli, A., Dimaggio, G., & Lingiardi, V. (2013). Patient personality and therapist response: An empirical investigation. American Journal of Psychiatry.
Therapist emotional responses to patients may refer to emotional reactions or to countertransference. Emotional responses can inform therapeutic interventions if therapists view their responses as informative about the patient’s feelings, perspectives, and relationship patterns. Clinicians have an intuitive sense that specific patient characteristics tend to evoke distinct emotional reactions (i.e., countertransferences) in the therapist. However, there are very few studies that examine the association between patient personality features and therapist emotional responses. A study Colli and colleagues examined this issue. They sampled 203 therapists from two theoretical orientations (psychodynamic = 103; cognitive-behavioral = 100). Among the therapists, 58% were women, mean age was 43 years, average experience was 10 years, average time spent providing psychotherapy was 16 hours per week, and 78% were in private practice. Each therapist was asked to randomly select a patient in their caseload, and complete a validated personality assessment questionnaire about the patient. Three weeks later, and immediately following a therapy session with the patient, the therapist completed a validated therapist emotional response questionnaire. Half of the patients were women (53%), mean age was 34 years, average length of treatment was 5 months (once per week), and 72% were diagnosed with a personality disorder (either comorbid or as a primary diagnosis). Patient paranoid and antisocial features were associated with therapists feeling criticized/mistreated. Patient borderline personality features were associated with therapists feeling helpless/inadequate, overwhelmed/disorganized, and special/overinvolved. Patient narcissistic features were associated with therapists feeling disengaged. Patient dependent personality features were associated with therapists feeling both parental/protective and special/overinvolved. The results were not affected by clinicians’ theoretical orientation. That is, psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapists showed similar emotional responses to each patient personality pattern.
The results do not appear to be an artifact of therapist theoretical orientation, and so the authors argue that patient interpersonal patterns are quite robust in evoking specific therapist countertransference. A therapist’s emotional responses that are not primarily related to the therapist’s own issues could be an important source of information about the patient’s emotional and interpersonal patterns. Therapist emotional responses can also impede the therapist’s work if the responses are not well understood. Therapists who treat those with borderline personality features may avoid their own experience of negative thoughts and feelings during a session and this may unwittingly manifest as a sudden confrontation of the patient. With patients who have narcissistic features, therapists may feel disengaged, unempathic, and emotionally mis-attuned, which could lead to an impasse or premature termination. Therapists who treat patients with dependent features may be overprotective and may avoid exploring the patient’s painful feelings.
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