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
Misadventures of the American Psychological Association Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Treatment of PTSD
Courtois, C. A. & Brown, L. S. (2019). Guideline orthodoxy and resulting limitations of the American Psychological Association’s Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of PTSD in Adults. Psychotherapy, 56(3), 329-339.
Recently the American Psychological Association (APA) published clinical practice guidelines for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The reaction from the clinical community that treats those with PTSD, client groups, and from many academic and research quarters was swift and negative. APA received almost 900 comments in their public consultations from many who felt the document was overly prescriptive, overly symptom-focused, and narrow in its recommendations. In this interesting inside look at the process, the Chair of the PTSD Practice Guidelines Committee (Christine Courtois) and a senior member of the Committee (Laura Brown) wrote a scathing commentary of the process imposed on them by APA that constrained the Committee’s access to information which affected their decisions. The Committee was bound by APA’s use of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) rules for developing practice guidelines. In other words, a psychological organization (APA) used a biomedical model to define what is relevant research, how to define treatment, what is an appropriate outcome, and how to decide on recommendations. As a result, the APA Committee reached several conclusions/decisions that were biased or premature. First, they defined PTSD only by its symptom presentation and not for the complex disorder that it is. In other words, PTSD was viewed almost exclusively from within a framework that defined it as only a fear-based response to a stressor. Such an approach downplays any developmental or attachment-related factors in the genesis or maintenance of PTSD. Second, the Committee was instructed to ignore a vast array of research on therapist factors, relationship factors, and client factors in psychotherapy. This runs counter to many clinicians’ views that one cannot engage in technical interventions related to PTSD symptoms without the patient experiencing a heightened sense of security in their relationship with the therapist. This also meant that the Committee largely ignored cultural and diversity factors. Third, the treatment recommendations focused on time-limited exposure-based interventions – which is a natural outcome of the first two decisions (i.e., seeing PTSD as only fear-based, ignoring issues of development, and ignoring relational factors in the treatment context). The authors were also disappointed that the APA ignored its own policy on evidence-based practice that puts equal weight on research, clinician expertise, and client factors when making clinical decisions. In the end the authors clearly were not confident in the narrow focus of the Clinical Practice Guideline, and they were concerned that clinicians, researchers, policy makers, and third party funders could misuse the Guideline to limit research, theory, and funding.
In this extraordinary piece, the Chair and a senior committee member of the PTSD Practice Guideline Committee were highly critical of the process and outcome of APA’s effort to develop clinical practice guidelines for PTSD. The authors did not diminish the importance of exposure-based interventions for PTSD, however they did argue that these interventions must be offered only after clinicians take a sufficient amount of time to create a clinical context characterized by clients experiencing heightened safety in the therapeutic relationship, and to into account client preferences and culture. Further, clinicians should be highly sensitive to attachment-related insecurities and developmental traumas that may lengthen the treatment and that may have a complicating impact on the therapeutic relationship.
Therapeutic Relationship and Therapist Responsiveness in the Treatment of PTSD
Norcross, J. C., & Wampold, B. E. (2019). Relationships and responsiveness in the psychological treatment of trauma: The tragedy of the APA Clinical Practice Guideline. Psychotherapy, 56(3), 391-399.
The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Clinical Practice Guideline for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Adults published in 2017 was met with a great deal of concern and criticism by the community of scholars and practitioners working with patients with PTSD. A key concern was that the APA used a biomedical model and not a psychological or contextual model in guiding their understanding of PTSD, their approach to what constitutes evidence, and to decisions about recommended treatments. In particular, the biomedical approach focuses almost exclusively on treatment methods, and down-plays the context of treatment (i.e., the relationship, patient factors, and therapist responsiveness). In this critique, Norcross and Wampold highlight the flaws in the APA Clinical Practice Guideline for PTSD, and the authors focus specifically on those variables that are known to predict patient outcomes but that were ignored by the Guideline. Norcross and Wampold highlighted that there exists numerous meta analyses that demonstrate that all bona fide psychotherapies work about equally well for trauma, and that the particular treatment method has little impact on PTSD outcomes. Yet, the restrictive review process undertaken by APA all but ignored this well-established finding. Also ignored was the research on the importance of the therapeutic relationship in the treatment of trauma. One review outlined nineteen studies that found that the therapeutic alliance was associated with or predicted reduction in PTSD symptoms. This is consistent with the general psychotherapy research literature, in which the alliance is the most researched and most reliable factor related to patient outcomes. Also missing from the PTSD Guideline was reference to a large body of research on therapist responsiveness to patient characteristics. Patients are more likely to improve if their therapists can adapt to the patient’s coping style, culture, preferences, level of resistance, and stage of change. In one study of cognitive-processing therapy (CPT; a treatment recommended by the APA Guideline), there were substantial differences between therapists in their patient’s PTSD symptom outcomes. That is, some therapists reliably were more effective than others, even though all therapists were trained in and supervised in providing the same manualized evidence-based treatment. Among the identified skills of the most effective CPT therapists were: a flexible interpersonal style, and an ability to develop and maintain a good therapeutic alliance across patients.
There is growing consensus that the APA Clinical Practice Guideline for PTSD are based on dubious methodology and are of limited use to therapists and their patients with PTSD. Psychotherapists should practice a bona-fide therapy for PTSD, but should do so by taking into account the treatment context. In other words, more effective therapists are good at developing, maintaining, and repairing the therapeutic alliance across a range of patients. Effective therapists can also respond and adapt to patient characteristics such as level of resistance, coping style, culture, and stage of change. And so, even when providing a treatment based on the APA Guideline, therapists should nurture trust in the therapeutic relationship and be adaptive to their patients’ characteristics.
Patients’ Experiences With Routine Outcome Monitoring
Solstad, S.M., Castonguay, L.G., & Moltu, C. (2018). Patients’ experiences with routine outcome monitoring and clinical feedback systems: A systematic review and synthesis of qualitative empirical literature. Psychotherapy Research. doi=10.1080/10503307.2017.1326645.
Routine outcome monitoring or progress monitoring involves assessing client outcomes or the therapeutic alliance on a weekly basis in psychotherapy, and then giving feedback to the therapist about how the client is doing relative to the previous week and relative to similar clients. Research on progress monitoring indicates that it improves outcomes and it reduces by half the number of clients who might get worse. Despite its benefits, many therapists are not aware of progress monitoring or are reluctant to use the procedure. Some have expressed concerns that progress monitoring could interfere with the therapeutic relationship. However, very few studies have asked clients about their experiences of progress monitoring. In this synthesis of qualitative studies, Solstad and colleagues reviewed 16 studies in which clients were interviewed about their experiences of progress monitoring. The authors used a procedure in which they identified common themes across the studies and categorized client statements within those themes (e.g., thematic analysis). The authors were interested in identifying what were the hindering and helpful processes in clients’ experiences of their therapists’ use of progress monitoring. Four main themes emerged from the research. First, some clients voiced suspicion of how the progress monitoring data was going to be used and why the procedure was implemented. That is, clients sometimes felt that filling out questionnaires weekly was mainly a bureaucratic exercise, or possibly a means to justify reducing services. Second, some clients felt the questionnaires were not flexible enough to capture the complexity of mental health and of client concerns. The questionnaires often focused on symptoms, but clients were also interested in the therapeutic relationship, family, and social functioning. Third, some clients wanted to be more fully informed about the rationale for progress monitoring so that they could feel more empowered to define their own outcomes and treatment plans. Fourth, some clients found progress monitoring to help them to see graphically their own progress, to become more engaged in treatment planning, and to participate in collaborative and reflective discussions with their therapist.
If psychotherapists choose to use progress monitoring in their practices, they should make sure that clients know what the data will be used for and that the exercise is not just a bureaucratic process. The practice of outcome or progress monitoring can be used to stimulate reflection not only in the therapist but also in the client. Reviewing the client data together might enhance conversations about therapy, the therapeutic relationship, and help to establish realistic goals for therapy. Therapists might consider not only measuring symptom progress repeatedly, but also measuring the working alliance on a regular basis.
The Partners for Change Outcome Monitoring System
Duncan, B. L., & Reese, R. J. (2015). The Partners for Change Outcome Management System (PCOMS): Revisiting the client’s frame of reference. Psychotherapy, 52(4), 391-401.
Generally, psychotherapy is effective for a wide variety of disorders, but regardless, many clients do not benefit. Further, the research shows that some therapists are more effective than others, but therapists tend to grossly over-estimate their effectiveness. In one large survey, therapists reported that their outcomes were better than 75% of their peers, no therapist rated themselves as below average, and therapists tended to over-estimate their effectiveness and under-estimate client deterioration. One way to evaluate patient outcomes and processes is to engage in progress monitoring and feedback. This involves repeated brief assessments of client outcomes followed by real-time feedback to therapists to gauge client progress and signal potential problems. Several such systems exist including the Outcome Questionnaire-45.2 and the Partners for Change Outcome Management System (PCOMS). The PCOMS is made up of the Outcome Rating Scale (ORS) and the Session Rating Scale (SRS). The ORS measures distress in 3 atheoretical domains (personal, family, social) not based on diagnosis. The SRS is a measure of therapeutic alliance. Both the ORS and SRS are very short 4-item scales that can be administered before (ORS) and after (SRS) each session of therapy. In this paper, Duncan and Reese review the research supporting the use of the PCOMS. A meta analysis found that clients whose therapists received feedback with the PCOMS were 3.5 times more likely to experience reliable change and had less than half the chance of experiencing deterioration. Five randomized controlled trials demonstrated the advantage of the PCOMS over treatment as usual, including by reducing drop outs and achieving reliable change in fewer sessions.
A lot of research has demonstrated that most therapists over-estimate their effectiveness and that many are not able to identify clients who are getting worse. It is time for therapists to acknowledge this positive bias of their effectiveness and their need for quality information in order to make good clinical decisions. Progress monitoring and feedback systems are one means by which therapists can receive quality information. The repeated use of the PCOMS for example, can help to identify when clients begin to deteriorate and/or when problems emerge with the therapeutic alliance. Being able to identify these issues early may allow therapists to act quickly to avert client deterioration or drop out.
Why Therapists Tend Not To Use Progress Monitoring
Miller, S. D., Hubble, M. A., Chow, D., & Seidel, J. (2015). Beyond measures and monitoring: Realizing the potential of feedback-informed treatment. Psychotherapy, 52(4), 449-457.
Progress monitoring is the process of repeatedly assessing client functioning with validated measures and providing feedback to therapists. The feedback is designed to identify problems with the therapeutic relationship or with client deterioration by comparing client progress to similar clients. This allows therapists to change what they are doing, renegotiate aspects of therapy, or directly address the issues. Research is clear that progress monitoring significantly increases the proportion of clients who improve, reduces drop outs by a third, shortens the length of therapy, and reduces costs. Yet the research also indicates that only 12% of psychologists are using progress monitoring in their practice. If progress monitoring is so useful, then why aren`t more therapists using it? In this review, Miller and colleagues discuss some of the barriers and problems with using or adopting progress monitoring in clinical practice. They describe that even in the most favorable circumstances, it takes about two decades for new treatments to be integrated into routine care. Another issue is that recent surveys indicate that only about 33% of psychologists and 66% of training directors are aware of progress monitoring. Even for those who are aware, a common barrier might be cost and time to implement the procedures. Despite the brevity and low cost of the tools, like the PCOMS, they all place an additional burden on clinicians’ busy schedule. There is also the issue of staff turnover. As staff come and go, organizations may lose those who lead, train, and support the use of progress monitoring. Probably the biggest barrier is skepticism on the part of clinicians who might see the tools as too superficial, or who might be concerned that repeated measurement may somehow negatively affect the therapeutic relationship. However, research indicates that clients generally report positive experiences – they like being a more integral part of the assessment process, and they appreciate the ability to track their own progress. Finally, whereas clinicians may use progress monitoring to improve clinical decision-making, administrators may see it as a means of conducting performance reviews.
In most health care fields, it can take 20 years for an innovation to make it into routine practice. That might be the case for progress monitoring. More clinicians need to know about it, be trained in its use, and see for themselves that the information is valid, of high quality, and that it can supplement their work in identifying clients who are not doing well. In particular, progress monitoring may be a means of enhancing the therapeutic alliance as it provides therapists and clients a vehicle to discuss how the therapy is going, what needs focus, and what to do if things go awry. Organizations need to treat progress monitoring as a means of helping therapists to improve their skills, and not as a means of auditing performance. Therapists need quality information upon which to make sound clinical decisions, and progress monitoring is one way of receiving this information.
Therapist Characteristics That Affect Client Outcomes
Lingiardi, V., Muzi, L., Tanzilli, A., & Carone, N. (2017). Do therapists' subjective variables impact on psychodynamic psychotherapy outcomes? A systematic literature review. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy. Advance online publication.
Psychotherapists differ in their effectiveness such that some therapists are more effective than others, and these differences account for up to 9% of client outcomes. Despite this, not many studies have looked at therapist personal characteristics that might be associated with better or worse outcomes. In this systematic literature review, Lingiardi and colleagues focus on empirical studies of psychodynamic therapists and their personal characteristics that might affect therapeutic processes and client outcomes. The authors included only quantitative studies. Thirty studies representing nearly 1,400 therapists and 6,000 clients were included in the review. Most studies occurred in a naturalistic setting, and most therapists were female (66%) with an average of over 9 years of experience. The studies looked at various therapist personal characteristics and their association with therapeutic processes and client outcomes. Therapist attachment security (ability to engage in meaningful loving relationships and adaptively manage emotions) was associated with better client outcomes. Similarly, therapists who reported better experiences of parental care and better quality relationships with attachment figures tended to have clients who rated a more positive therapeutic alliance. In addition, therapist interpersonal functioning was evaluated in several studies. Therapists who were rated as more affiliative (warm, friendly) and less hostile (cold, rejecting) tended to have clients who achieved better outcomes. Further, therapist facilitative interpersonal skills (emotional expressiveness, verbal fluency, warmth, empathy) were associated with better client outcomes in short-term therapy. Finally, several studies assessed therapist self-concept (stable means by which one treats oneself). Therapists who were more hostile or negative toward the self tended to be more critical or ignoring of clients, which lead to poorer client outcomes.
Therapist personal characteristics (attachment security), interpersonal skills (warmth, friendliness, empathy), and self concept (how one treats oneself) may account for why some therapists are more effective than others. Problems in these areas might lead to problematic countertransference (emotional reactions on the part of therapists triggered by client issues) or therapeutic alliance ruptures, both of which are related to poorer client outcomes. Therapists can learn methods of managing countertransference and repairing alliance ruptures. If the personal characteristics are persistent and problematic, therapists might consider personal therapy.