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 CBT, negative effects of psychological interventions, and what people want from therapy.
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
Does Treatment Fidelity Lead to Better Patient Outcomes?
Alexandersson, K., Wågberg, M., Ekeblad, A., Holmqvist, R., & Falkenström, F. (2022) Session-to-session effects of therapist adherence and facilitative conditions on symptom change in CBT and IPT for depression. Psychotherapy Research, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2022.2025626.
There has been a long-standing debate in psychotherapy about whether a therapist’s capacity to be adherent to treatment manual and to be competent in delivering specific treatment interventions leads to better patient outcomes. Some argue that rigid adherence may lead to worse outcomes, and meta-analytic research suggests that specific treatment adherence or competence has no impact on outcomes. Others argue that facilitative therapist behaviors (empathy, warmth, involvement, support) and the therapeutic alliance plays a more important role in whether patients get better. It is possible that psychotherapy research designs and rudimentary data analytic methods obscure the effects of therapist treatment adherence. In this study, Alexandersson and colleagues collected data from a randomized controlled trial of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) for depression. The researchers rated therapist behaviors (adherence to the treatment manual, facilitative behaviors) from recorded therapy sessions. They also assessed patient ratings of the therapeutic alliance after every session. Alexandersson and colleagues used a statistical modeling procedure that allowed them to look specifically at the effects of therapist adherence in a previous session on a patient’s depressive symptoms in a subsequent session. Their results did not show any effects of therapists’ use of specific CBT or IPT techniques on patient outcomes. Facilitative therapist behaviors in a previous session predicted better patient outcomes in the next session for CBT but not for IPT. The effects of facilitative therapist behaviors on outcomes were partially explained by levels of the therapeutic alliance. That is, facilitative behaviors among CBT therapists led to higher therapeutic alliance ratings by patients, which in turn led to lower patient depression scores in the subsequent session.
The authors were a little surprised that facilitative therapist behaviors (empathy, warmth, involvement, support) led to better outcomes in CBT but not in IPT. They speculated that therapist relational competence might be especially relevant early in CBT to facilitate a strong alliance, which in turn reduces depressive symptoms among patients. The demanding tasks of CBT (behavioral activation, homework) might mean that therapists’ warmth, support and engagement are important precursors to patients benefitting from the therapy.
Effectiveness and Adherence of Telephone-Administered Psychotherapy
Effectiveness and Adherence of Telephone-Administered Psychotherapy
Castro, A., Gili, M., Ricci-Cagello, I., Roca, M., Gilbody, S., Perez-Ara, A., Segui, A., & McMillan, D. (2020). Effectiveness and adherence of telephone-administered psychotherapy for depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 260, 514-526.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in psychotherapy providers moving to online and telephone-delivered interventions. But questions remain about the efficacy of delivering psychotherapy in these formats to patients with depression. Depression is highly prevalent as it affects about 320 million people around the world and causes serious disability and lowered quality of life. Psychotherapy is effective in treating depression, however there are significant barriers to people accessing face-to-face psychotherapy including cost, stigma, distance, and disability. Telephone-delivered psychotherapy may minimize these barriers. One potential question that may arise is whether patients will adhere to telephone-delivered psychotherapy. That is, will patients find telephone sessions acceptable as indicted by the rate of starting therapy and of attending sessions? In this systematic review and meta-analysis, Castro and colleagues evaluated whether telephone-delivered psychotherapy for depression is as effective as other active treatments and more effective than no-treatment. The authors also examined the level of adherence/acceptability to telephone administered treatment, determined by the percent of scheduled sessions actually attended by a patient. The sample of studies was small such the authors only found a total of 11 direct comparison randomized controlled trials. These trials represented almost 1400 patients. The only treatment tested in these trials were CBT-oriented. Four studies found that telephone-delivered therapy produced significantly larger reductions in depressive symptoms when compared to no treatment controls (mean SMD = -0.48; 95% CI: -0.82 to -0.14). In four other studies telephone-administered therapy was just as effective as an active control (e.g., medication or self-help). The weighted average percentage of scheduled telephone sessions that patients attended was 73%, and the percent of patients who started telephone therapy after the initial referral was about 90%. These percentages indicating adherence and acceptability are similar to findings reported from individual psychotherapy studies.
There are few randomized controlled trials that assess the efficacy of telephone-administered psychotherapy, and these studies were limited to only one type of intervention. However, the findings from this meta-analysis suggested that telephone-delivered psychotherapy may be efficacious and as effective as some other active treatments. Further, telephone therapy may be acceptable to patients in that they start and attend sessions at a rate similar to face-to-face therapy. These preliminary findings provide clinicians who provide telephone psychotherapy during this period of physical distancing due to COVID-19 with some evidence for the utility of telephone delivered treatment.
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.
Therapist Interpersonal Skills Account for Patient Outcomes
Schottke, H., Fluckiger, C., Goldberg, S.B., Eversmann, & Lange, J. (2016). Predicting psychotherapy outcome based on therapist interpersonal skills: A five-year longitudinal study of a therapist assessment protocol. Psychotherapy Research, DOI: 0.1080/10503307.2015.1125546
Therapist effects, or differences between therapists, account for an important amount of patient outcomes (i.e., 5% to 7%). Two therapist characteristics most consistently proposed as predictors of patient outcomes are: therapist competence/adherence to a treatment manual, and therapist interpersonal skills. A recent meta analysis found that therapist adherence or competence were not significantly related to patient outcomes. However, there has been very little research on therapists’ interpersonal capacities. These capacities might include factors like: empathy, warmth, ability to respond well to patient hostility, sensitivity to interpersonal process in therapy, and ability to address alliance ruptures. In this paper, Schottke and colleagues (2016) conducted a five year study with 41 therapists and 264 patients in which they assessed the impact of therapist interpersonal skills on patient outcomes. The therapists were all post-graduate trainees and who practiced a manual oriented cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or psychodynamic therapy (PDT). The patients were adults mainly treated for depression, and many had co-morbid problems. What was unique about the study is that the therapist interpersonal skill was rated before they received formal training, and the rating were done by trained reliable judges. The judges rated the therapist trainees on interpersonal skills including: clear and positive communication, empathy, warmth, managing criticism, and willingness to cooperate. Patients were assessed pre- and post-treatment on general symptom outcomes. Higher therapist interpersonal skills were reliably associated with better patient outcomes, even after controlling for symptoms severity and number of comorbid diagnoses. In this study, therapist interpersonal capacities measured before receiving formal training and supervision was a significant predictor of patient outcomes after training was initiated.
The findings of this study indicate that therapists’ talent should in part be characterized by interpersonal competencies that include clear communication, empathy, respectful management of criticism, warmth, and willingness to cooperate. It could be that therapist trainees with high interpersonal skills engage in an extensive degree of deliberate practice that may account for better patient outcomes.