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 psychotherapy for borderline personality disorder, capacity to metnalize and therapy resistant depression, and negative effects of psychotherapy
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.
Does Organizational Context Have an Effect on Patient Outcomes?
Falkenström, F., Grant, J., & Holmqvist, R. (2016): Review of organizational effects on the outcome of mental health treatments. Psychotherapy Research, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2016.1158883
Many psychotherapists treat patients within organizational contexts. These contexts might include university clinics, hospitals, primary care centers, community health centers, or even shared or group private practices. Psychotherapy researchers are often concerned with patient outcomes and predictors of outcomes like patient, therapist, or relationship variables. However, rarely do psychotherapy researchers consider the effects of the larger organizational context within which the psychotherapy is provided. On the other hand, many organizational psychology researchers are interested in organizational culture and management practices but seldom link these directly to patient outcomes. Is there an effect of the organizational context (i.e., culture and climate) on patient outcomes, and can we understand its effects in order to improve outcomes? Falkenstrom and colleagues review this literature. Organizational culture refers to shared norms, beliefs, and expectations in an organization or unit. These can be affected by hierarchical structure (i.e., perceived power differences between professions), managerial principles and styles (e.g., rigid vs lax styles, supportive and active vs undermining, micro-managing, or disengaged), and by technology. Various organizations appear to engender different cultures such that the staff can be more or less committed to the organization strategies and to the work itself. This is the basis of the well known expression: “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Organizational climate refers to the overall sense of psychological security in a work environment. This may have an impact on workers’ attitudes and performance, and may also affect their willingness to report errors and to problem solve. In their review, Falkenstrom and colleagues found only 19 studies that directly assessed the effects of organizational context on patient mental health outcomes. Differences between organizations appeared to account for between 6% and 60% of patient outcomes. This is a very wide range that may be the result of many differences between studies (i.e., different patient populations, different definitions of outcomes, different definitions and measurements of organizational variables, etc.). However, even at 6%, this represents what most researchers would call a medium and meaningful effect. For example, Falkenstrom and colleagues reviewed specific studies and found that organizational climate (i.e., low conflict, low emotional exhaustion, and high cooperation and job satisfaction) were related to better psychosocial functioning in children placed in state custody. Several other studies showed that high staff turnover, low levels of support from leadership, and low mutual respect among professionals was associated with poorer mental health outcomes for a variety of patient populations. One study found that an intervention to improve organizational culture and climate resulted in improving mental health outcomes among children and adolescents.
There are surprisingly few studies that look at the relationship between organizational culture and patient outcomes. Although limited, most of the studies point to the effects of organizational culture and climate on staff and on patient outcomes. With increased emphasis on quality control in mental health care, it makes sense for managers, practitioners, researchers and patient groups to carefully consider an organization’s managerial practices, leadership, culture, and climate when looking to improve patient outcomes.
Common Factors Across 5 Therapies for Suicidal Patients with Borderline Personality Disorder
Sledge, W., Plukin, E.M., Bauer, S., Brodsky, B.,... Yoemans, F. (2014). Psychotherapy for suicidal patients with borderline personality disorder: An expert consensus review of common factors across five therapies. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, 1:16. doi:10.1186/2051-6673-1-16.
Treating patients with suicidal ideation and borderline personality disorder (BPD) can cause significant anxiety, concern, anger, and guilt in clinicians. Strong emotional reactions can lead to risky therapeutic interventions, poor clinical decisions, and professional burn out. The outcome of therapy can have serious consequences for such patients. Recently, a panel of 13 experts reviewed the efficacy of the most common treatments for suicidal ideation in BPD. As part of the review, they identified the common factors that may be useful for all clinicians who work with these clients. The five therapies they reviewed included the following. Dialectical behavior therapy, which emphasizes the role of emotional dysregulation and impulsivity in suicide. Treatment includes distress tolerance, emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and mindfulness. Schema therapy decreases suicide risk by challenging negative thoughts with cognitive and behavioral techniques while using the therapeutic relationship to improve the patient’s capacity to attach to others. Mentalization based therapy works toward improving the patient’s capacity to keep in mind the patient’s own mind and the mind of the other. This encourages new perspectives on relationships and emotion regulation. Transference focused psychotherapy views suicidal behavior in BPD as related to distorted images of the self and others. The treatment emphasizes gaining greater awareness of self in relation to others, and integrating a more realistic experience of the self. Good psychiatric management is an integrative approach that uses both psychodynamic and behavioral concepts. The approach sees BPD as a problem with interpersonal hypersensitivity, but the management tends to be more pragmatic than theoretically based. The expert panel defined six common factors among these treatments. (1) Negotiation of a frame for treatment – in which roles and responsibilities of therapist and patient are defined before the start of treatment, including an explicit crisis plan. (2) Recognition of the patient’s responsibilities within therapy. (3) The therapist having a clear conceptual framework for understanding the disorder that then guides the interventions. (4) Use of the therapeutic relationship to engage the patient and to address suicide actively and explicitly. (5) Prioritizing suicide as a topic whenever it comes up in the therapy. (6) Providing support for the therapist through supervision, consultation, and peer support.
Suicidal ideation in patients with BPD can have serious consequences for the patient and can be highly stressful for the clinician. This expert panel identified six common features of most major treatment approaches to suicidal ideation in BPD. Even if clinicians are not explicitly trained in any one of the approaches, ensuring that these six factors are present in their work will improve the likelihood that their patients will experience a good outcome.
Patient Experience of Negative Effects of Psychotherapy
Crawford, M.J., Thana, L., Farquharson, L., Palmer, L., Hancock, E.... Parry, G.D. (2016). Patient experience of negative effects of psychological treatment: results of a national survey. British Journal of Psychiatry, 208, 260-265.
There is lots of evidence that psychotherapy is effective for a wide variety of disorders. However, a number of studies report that between 5% and 10% of patients report higher levels of symptoms following treatment compared to when they started. Although the side effects and negative outcomes in pharmacological treatment studies are routinely reported, negative outcomes in psychological treatment studies are rarely reported and investigated. In this very large survey, Crawford and colleagues analysed data from an audit of state funded psychological therapies for depression and anxiety in England and Wales. Adult patients from 220 centers were invited to complete an anonymous service-user questionnaire that asked about their experiences of the processes and outcomes of psychotherapy. Some of the questions asked if clients experienced a “lasting bad effect” from the treatment. Nearly 15,000 individuals responded to the survey. More than half (51%) were treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, and most clients received only one treatment, which was predominantly individual therapy. Most (74.35%) received fewer than 10 sessions. Of the respondents, 763 (5.23%) reported that therapy had a “lasting bad effect”, and an additional 7.70% were “unsure” whether they experienced a lasting bad effect. People over 65 years old were less likely to have a lasting negative effect, and those from minority ethnic groups and non-heterosexuals were more likely to report lasting bad effects. In addition, those who did not know what type of therapy they received were more likely to have lasting bad effects.
A substantial minority of patients reported lasting negative effects from their psychological treatment. With approximately a million Canadians receiving outpatient psychological treatment of one form or another each year, these findings imply that thousands of patients could have experienced a lasting negative effect. The findings suggest that psychotherapists need to be highly sensitive to cultural and ethnic minority issues and acquire cultural competence. The same is true when treating non-heterosexuals. Clinicians should also make sure to provide sufficient information to patients about the type of treatment they are receiving as part of the informed consent process. Attending to these issues may reduce the likelihood of therapeutic alliance ruptures that may be related to lasting negative effects.
Nonimproved Patients View Their Psychotherapy
Werbart, A., Von Below, C., Brun, J., & Gunnarsdottir, H. (2015). “Spinning one’s wheels”: Nonimproved patients view their psychotherapy. Psychotherapy Research, 25, 546-564.
The rate of patients who experience no change after receiving psychotherapy is about 35% to 40% in clinical trials. Further, about 5% to 10% get worse after treatment. So, in spite of the fact that psychotherapy is effective in general, a sizeable minority of patients do not benefit. There is also evidence that patients’ perception of therapy differs greatly from their therapists’. Therapists are often inaccurate in identifying or predicting patient outcomes, and patients’ judgements tend to better correspond with treatment outcomes. In this study, Werbart and colleagues evaluated outcomes of 134 patients who had elevated symptoms. The average age of patients was 22.4 years (range 18 – 26), so many were young adults. Almost all received a diagnosis ranging from depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, or personality disorders. The predominant treatment was psychoanalytic. Of the 134 patients, many experienced large improvements by the end of treatment. However, 20 patients remained clinically distressed and did not improve or deteriorated after receiving psychotherapy. The authors interviewed these 20 patients at termination and at three-year follow-up using a semi-structured interview. The interview asked patients for their experiences of therapy. The researchers transcribed the interviews and coded the transcripts using a known method of qualitative analysis called “grounded theory”. Three main themes related to poor outcomes were identified by these patients. (1) The therapy or therapist – in which: therapists were perceived by patients as passive or reticent, patients felt distant from the therapist, and patients did not understand the therapy method. (2) Outcomes of therapy – in which: the patient expected more from therapy, and symptoms and emotional problems remained in the “impaired” range at the end of treatment. (3) The impact of life circumstances – referring to negative impacts of events outside of the therapy.
This is a small but unique study that interviewed patients who did not benefit from psychotherapy about their experiences of the treatment and therapist. Nonimproved patients described their therapist generally as too passive, distant, and uninvolved in the work of therapy. These patients described difficulty understanding the therapeutic method and the nature of the therapeutic relationship. The findings highlight the importance of the therapeutic alliance. To have a good alliance, patients and therapists have to agree on the tasks of therapy, agree on the goals that the therapy should achieve for the patient, and there should be a mutual liking or bond between patient and therapist. Those patients whose therapists pay attention to and foster a good alliance are more likely to experience good outcomes.