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
Researcher Allegiance in Psychotherapy Outcome Research
Munder, T., Brütsch, O., Leonhart, R., Gerger, H., & Barth, J. (2013). Researcher allegiance in psychotherapy outcome research: An overview of reviews. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 501-511.
Although evidence for the efficacy of psychotherapy is largely uncontested, there remains debate about whether one type of treatment is more effective than another. This debate continues despite a recent American Psychological Association (APA) resolution on the equivalent efficacy of most systematic psychotherapy approaches. There are many aspects to this debate (e.g., some treatments are more researched than others and so appear to be better; symptom focused measurements are more sensitive to change and so may favour one treatment over another; some treatments are more amenable to manualization and short term application; etc.). One element of the debate that has received a lot of attention is researcher allegiance. Researcher allegiance refers to researchers preferring one treatment approach over another, and this preference may bias comparative outcome trials in favour of the preferred therapy. Researcher allegiance is measured by assessing primary researchers’ publication history or by their self-declared preference for a particular therapy approach. There exist 30 meta analyses that assessed researcher allegiance since the 1980s. These meta analyses focused on different therapy types, client populations (adults, children), and research designs (randomized trials, naturalistic effectiveness studies). However, some meta analyses have reported contradictory results for the researcher allegiance effect. This could be due to the different foci of the meta analyses (i.e., different treatment approaches, patient populations, age groups, etc.), and also possibly due the allegiance of those conducting the meta analyses. Munder and colleagues (2013) conducted a mega analysis of these meta analyses. As the name implies, a mega analysis aggregates the findings of available meta analyses. Munder and colleagues found a significant moderate effect of researcher allegiance. Researcher allegiance was consistent across patient populations, age groups, outcome measures, type of study design, and year of publication.
As the APA resolution indicates, psychotherapy is the informed and intentional application of clinical methods and interpersonal stances derived from established psychological principles. Evidence-based practice in psychotherapy is "the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture and preferences". The results of this mega analysis undermine the claim of some comparative outcome studies that suggest that one evidence-based psychotherapy is more effective than another.
Author email: email@example.com
Client Severity, Comorbidity, and Motivation to Change
Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change: Starting in March 2013 I will review one chapter a month from the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change in addition to reviewing psychotherapy research articles. Book chapters have more restrictive copy right rules than journal articles, so I will not provide author email addresses for these chapters. If you are interested, you can read the Handbook table of content and sections of the book on Google Books.
Bohart, A.C. & Wade, A.G. (2013). The client in psychotherapy. In M. Lambert (Ed.) Bergin and Garfield’s handbook of psychotherapy and behavior change (6th ed.), pp. 219-257. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Last month I blogged about the section in Bohart and Wade’s (2013) chapter that focused on client attachment. This month I focus on other factors like severity of distress and comorbidity, and level of motivation. Some authors argue that client factors predict 30% of variance in outcomes. That accounts for more of psychotherapy outcome than therapist effects and therapeutic techniques combined. Severity of symptoms of anxiety and depression and functional impairment caused by this distress leads to poorer client prognosis. Further, individuals with more severe symptoms need more sessions to show improvement. Some research shows that those with greater symptoms change more than those with fewer symptoms. However, even though those with higher levels of distress show the most change, they are less likely to achieve recovery in which they return to a normal level of functioning. In most cases, clients with comorbid problems are less likely to do well. For example, comorbidity for personality disorder or substance abuse negatively impact outcome. Client motivation is also related to psychotherapy outcomes. Motivation can be internal (those that arise from the individual’s intrinsic interests or values) or external (those that arise from external rewards or punishments). Generally, internal motives (i.e., greater readiness to change) are better predictors of sustained behaviour change. The stages of change model describes readiness to change as occurring in progressive stages that include: (1) precontemplation, in which clients are not internally motivated; (2) contemplation in which clients move to the next stage where they recognize a problem but are not ready to take action; and (3) preparation for action in which clients are more internally motivated to change. The next two stages of the model do not speak to motivation but to action and maintenance of change. Norcross looked at clients’ readiness to change prior to therapy and its relationship to outcome. Greater readiness to change was moderately and significantly associated with better treatment outcomes.
The results on severity and comorbidity suggest that providers and policy makers must consider increasing the number of treatment sessions to take into account clients who have greater initial severity and comorbidities, especially for those with comorbid personality disorders. Results related to motivation indicate that when client motivation to work in therapy comes from within and they show progress in their readiness to change, they are more likely to do well. Therapists need to find ways of mobilizing clients’ internal reasons for change. Motivational interviewing may be one means of doing so.
Client Attachment and Psychotherapy Process and Outcome
Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change: Starting in March 2013 I will review one chapter a month from the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change in addition to reviewing psychotherapy research articles. Book chapters have more restrictive copy right rules than journal articles, so I will not provide author email addresses for these chapters. If you are interested, the Handbook table of content can be viewed on Amazon.
Bohart, A.C. & Wade, A.G. (2013). The client in psychotherapy. In M. Lambert (Ed.) Bergin and Garfield’s handbook of psychotherapy and behavior change (6th ed.), pp. 219-257. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Some authors argue that client factors account for 30% of variance in outcomes. That represents a greater association to psychotherapy outcome than therapist effects and therapeutic techniques combined. In this part of the Handbook chapter on client factors, Bohart and Wade discuss client attachment. Bowlby found that attachment relationships were important and were different from other relationships. Attachment figures confer a sense of security and safety to infants that allow children to explore their environment and experience the self. Attachment patterns that develop in childhood tend to be stable throughout the lifespan, but attachment style can change with positive (i.e., psychotherapy, romantic relationships) and negative (i.e., traumatic events) experiences. Attachment security is associated with adaptive affect regulation, positive view of self and others, and reflective functioning that is related to mentalizing. Attachment anxiety is associated with maladaptive up-regulation of emotions, positive view of others but negative view of self, and reduced reflective functioning likely due to preoccupation with relationships and emotion dysregulation. Attachment avoidance is associated with maladaptive down-regulation of emotions, negative view of others and positive view of self (or negative view of others and negative view of self in the case of fearful avoidant attachment), and limited reflective functioning due to dismissing of emotions and relationships. There are also disorganized attachment states related to traumatic events. Those with attachment avoidance tend to be distrustful and less likely to seek psychotherapy. A meta-analysis by Levy and colleagues (2011) of 19 studies including 1467 clients found that attachment security was associated with good psychotherapy outcomes and attachment anxiety was negatively associated with good outcomes. No relationship was found for attachment avoidance and outcomes. Diener and Monroe (2011) conducted a separate meta analysis on attachment and therapeutic alliance which included 17 studies with 886 clients. They found that clients with secure attachments had better alliances with their therapist and those with insecure attachments (anxious or avoidant) had weaker alliances.
The research is clear that client attachment style influences how clients enter therapy, engage with the therapist, and experience outcomes. Attachment style likely affects specific therapy behaviors like self-disclosure and amount of exploration. In his book Attachment and Psychotherapy, David Wallin (2007) translates attachment theory into a framework for adult psychotherapy by tailoring interventions to specific attachment styles. For example, clients with greater attachment anxiety may do better in psychotherapy when the therapist: helps with down regulation of client emotional experiences, behaves in a way that does not evoke client fears of abandonment or loss, and helps clients improve reflective functioning by encouraging a thoughtful appraisal of their behaviors. On the other hand clients with greater attachment avoidance may require a therapist who: slowly introduces the client to greater attention to emotional experiences, does not demand too much from the client in terms of closeness in therapy at the outset, and encourages reflective functioning by helping the client understand the association between defensive avoidance of affect and relationship problems.
How to Identify and Help Clients Who Might Deteriorate
Lambert, M. J. (2012). Helping clinicians to use and learn from research-based systems: The OQ-analyst. Psychotherapy, 49(2), 109.
One of the more interesting and clinically relevant trends in psychotherapy research and practice in the past 10 years is the emergence of research on continuous progress monitoring. Continuous progress monitoring occurs when a patient is given a standardized self report measure before a session and the results of patient functioning are fed back to the therapist. (This is distinct from a clinician asking a patient for a verbal account of how he or she is doing this week). The standardized self report assessment is often done repeatedly, sometimes before every session or every fixed number of sessions. Measures, such as the Outcome Questionnaire (OQ) for adults or youths, was specifically designed for this purpose. The OQ assesses symptoms, interpersonal functioning, and life functioning, and clients are identified as improving (i.e., on course), or at risk of deteriorating. Recently, a small meta analysis of 3 to 4 studies representing 454 to 558 clients on the effects of progress monitoring found a moderate relationship between monitoring plus feedback and client outcomes. The method is particularly effective in changing the course of outcomes for patients who are deteriorating. Large research reviews of evidence based treatments in randomized controlled trials show that about 40% to 60% of patients improve or recover from psychotherapy, 30% to 50% may not benefit, and 3% to 14% deteriorate (see my March 2013 blog). These proportions are likely less positive in everyday practice in which clients are not highly screened to meet research inclusion criteria. Unfortunately, clinicians’ views of their own client outcomes are unrealistically positive. In one survey, clinicians in routine practice reported that about 85% of their clients improved or recovered. About 90% of therapists rated themselves in the upper quartile and none rated themselves as below average (50th percentile). Also there is serious doubt about the ability of clinicians to identify clients during the course of therapy, who ultimately deteriorate. In the paper by Lambert on the use of the Outcome Questionnaire (OQ), he reviewed several studies on continuous progress monitoring in everyday practice. Each therapist was asked to practice as they routinely do with half their usual caseload. With the other half of their caseload clients completed the OQ and the therapist received feedback before every session about patient progress. The feedback did not make a difference for clients who made steady progress (i.e., on track) from week to week. However, continuous progress monitoring did make a difference for the 20% to 30% who showed some sign of deteriorating at some point in treatment. Notifying therapists that these patients were in trouble reduced the rate of deterioration from 20.1% to 5.5%, and monitoring and feedback increased positive outcomes from 22.3% to 55.5%.
Lambert reported that clinicians in these “practice as usual” studies were initially skeptical but quite surprised at the outcomes related to continuous progress monitoring. Standardized assessments appear to get around the problem of clinician over-estimation of their patients’ positive outcomes. Clinicians were able to more accurately identify clients at risk of deteriorating likely resulting in the therapist doing something different to forestall the negative consequences. Lambert argues that it is in the best interest of at-risk patients to have their symptoms, interpersonal functioning, and life functioning formally monitored throughout treatment. However, clinicians are likely to resist doing so because they believe that they are already highly successful, and even more so than the typical outcomes produced by clinical trials. Formal monitoring of client outcomes has little downside for clinicians (it is inexpensive and requires little training), and it has many upsides for clients, especially those who are at risk for deteriorating.
Author email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Some Therapists are Reliably Effective and a Few are Reliably Harmful
Kraus, D. R., Castonguay, L., Boswell, J. F., Nordberg, S. S., & Hayes, J. A. (2011). Therapist effectiveness: Implications for accountability and patient care. Psychotherapy Research, 21, 267-276.
Some patients benefit from psychotherapy, some do not, and a few get worse. Research has indicated that patient motivation, client-therapist match, and client characteristics might be associated with better or worse client outcomes. What about the contribution of the therapist? Do some therapists consistently have patients with better outcomes or with worse outcomes? Are consistently effective therapists effective for most patient problem areas or only some? Answers to these questions have important public health, funding, continuing education, and training implications. In a large study conducted in the U.S., Kraus and colleagues assessed 12 patient domains (sexual functioning, work functioning, violence, social functioning, anxiety, substance abuse, psychosis, quality of life, sleep, suicidality, depression, and mania) with a standardized reliable measure (the Treatment Outcome Package). The measure was used in a variety of public and private clinics and practices. Almost 700 therapists were sampled (including social workers 43%, mental health counsellors 35%, psychologists 10%, others 12%), with an average of 11 years experience. Ten cases were selected from each therapist caseload, so almost 7000 patients were included that received at least 16 sessions of therapy (16 sessions is an adequate dose for 50% of patients to improve – see my August, 2013 blog). The patients were, for the most part, representative of a typical caseload with regard to age, sex, and problem area as compared to previous national (U.S.) research. The authors used a reliable change index to classify patients as reliably improved, unchanged, or reliably worsened. The reliable change index is a way of assessing if change from session 1 to 16 on average exceeded the scale’s measurement error so that the change was considered reliable (i.e., not due to error). Reliable change for each therapist’s 10 patients was calculated so that a therapist could be classified as “effective” (i.e., on average their patients reliably improved), “ineffective” (i.e., on average their patients did not change), or “harmful” (i.e., on average their patients reliably worsened). The frequency of effective therapists ranged from a low of 29% in treating symptoms of sexual dysfunction to a high of 67% in treating symptoms of depression. Harmful therapists ranged from a low of 3% in treating depressive symptoms to a high of 16% in treating symptoms of substance abuse and violence. When looking at competency areas (i.e., areas of reliable effectiveness), the median number of areas of therapist competence was 5 out of 12 problem areas. Only 1 therapist of the approximately 700 therapists was competent in 11 of 12 domains, and none were competent in all 12 domains. Being effective in one domain was not correlated with effectiveness in another domain. So, one cannot infer that if a therapist was effective in treating depression he or she would also be effective in treating social dysfunction, for example.
There was tremendous variability in therapist skill and areas of competence in this very large sample of therapists. Between 3% and 16% of therapists were classified as reliably harmful to their patients, and between 29% and 67% were reliably effective depending on the problem area they were treating. Therapists who were effective in one domain could be harmful in another. Most therapists had some areas in which they were consistently effective, usually around 5. However, as indicated by previous research, without routine measurement, therapists may not be aware of clients for whom they are consistently helpful or harmful. Routine monitoring of outcomes could guide the matching of client problems to therapists, and could direct therapists to areas for continuing education, training, or personal therapy.
Author email: email@example.com
How Much Psychotherapy Is Necessary?
Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change: Starting in March 2013 I will review one chapter a month in the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change in addition to reviewing psychotherapy research articles. Book chapters have more restrictive copy right rules than journal articles, so I will not provide author email addresses. If you are interested, the Handbook table of content can be viewed on Amazon.
Lambert, M.J. (2013). The efficacy and effectiveness of psychotherapy. In M.J. Lambert (Ed.) Bergin and Garfield’s handbook of psychotherapy and behaviour change (6th ed.), pp. 169-218. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.
An important issue for patients, therapists, and agencies is the optimal dosage of psychotherapy that is necessary to reduce impairment and improve life functioning. In this part of the Handbook chapter on Efficacy and Effectiveness of Psychotherapy, Lambert tackles the issue of the psychotherapy dose-response relationship by reviewing the existing literature. That literature tends to focus on naturalistic national (U.S.) samples of patients (often N > 6,000) receiving routine care in Health Maintenance Organizations, Employee Assistance Programs, and Community Mental Health Clinics. Outcomes tend to be assessed by patient self report, and can include symptoms, character traits, quality of life, and interpersonal functioning, among others. Lambert defines “improved” patients as those who reliably changed but still are within the dysfunctional range on a measure, and he defines “recovered” patients as those who both reliably improved and were no longer in the dysfunctional range. He concluded that on average 50% of patients who begin treatment in the dysfunctional range achieve recovery following 21 sessions of psychotherapy. On the flip side, half of patients do not achieve recovery after 21 sessions. Almost 50 sessions are necessary for 75% of patients to recover. In other words, there is a rapid rate of recovery in which half of patients recover after 21 sessions, but then the rate of recovery slows down so that it takes up to 50 sessions for an additional 25% of patients to recover. The rates of recovery also differ depending on what is measured. Symptoms (depression, anxiety, etc.) tend to recover more quickly than characterological or interpersonal problems. Further, some patients experience sudden symptom gains in therapy that are long lasting. Between 17% and 50% of patients experience the majority of their symptom improvements within 7 sessions, and these early changes accounted for 50% of total symptom gains in therapy.
The question of how much therapy is enough is important for practical and theoretical reasons. Research on this topic can help patients, therapists, and agencies make decisions about treatment planning. Research suggests that a sizeable proportion of patients (50%) reliably improve after 7 sessions and a similar percentage recover after 21 sessions. However, limiting treatment to less than 20 sessions will mean that about half of patients will not achieve a substantial benefit from therapy. Session limits need to be assessed carefully depending on how the patient is doing and what outcomes are important or valued. Agencies or clinicians that firmly set limits on the number of psychotherapy sessions that are too low will have the majority of their patients showing some improvement but not recovering.