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
What is the Therapist’s Contribution to Patient Drop-out?
Saxon, D., Barkham, M., Foster, A., & Parry, G. (2016). The contribution of therapist effects to patient dropout and deterioration in the psychological therapies. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, DOI: 10.1002/cpp.2028.
Sometimes patients experience negative outcomes in psychotherapy. For example, some patients drop out of therapy (i.e., they unilaterally decide to leave therapy before making any progress or before the endpoint planned with the therapist). In a previous meta-analysis of 669 studies, dropout rates ranged from 17% to 26% in psychotherapy trials. In this study, Saxon and colleagues were interested in the therapist effect on drop out. In other words, what is the impact of the individual therapist on negative outcomes like patients unilaterally terminating treatment? To examine the therapist effect one can look at differences between therapists in the average number of patients who drop out within their caseload. The authors looked at over 10,000 patients seen by 85 therapists from 14 sites in the United Kingdom initiative for Improving Access to Psychological Therapies. Therapists were selected if they saw more than 30 patients, and patients were included if they attended more than one session of therapy. Patient mean age was 40.3 (SD = 13.0), 71.2% were women, most were White (95%) and employed (76%). Of all the patients, 76.8% had some level of depression and 82.7% had some level of anxiety. Over 90% of the patients scored in the clinical range for symptom severity at pre-treatment. Patient symptom severity seen by a particular therapist was controlled in this study so that therapists who tended to treat severe cases were not penalized (i.e., case mix was controlled). Patients who dropped out represented 33.8% of the sample, with over half of these patients unilaterally terminating before the third session. The mean number of sessions for treatment completers was 6.1 (SD = 2.68). Therapist differences (i.e., the therapist effect) accounted for 12.6% (CI = 9.1, 17.4) of the patient drop out variance. In other words, about a quarter of therapists had a significantly greater number of drop outs compared to the average therapist. The mean dropout rate for the average therapist was 29.7% (SD = 6.4), the mean dropout rate for the above average therapist was 12.0% (SD = 7.3), whereas the mean dropout rate for the below average therapist was 49.0% (SD = 10.4).
Who a patient gets as a therapist appears to have an important impact on whether the patient remains in therapy. Almost half of clients dropped out if they saw a poorly performing therapist (and nearly a quarter of therapists were poorly performing). By contrast, highly performing therapists only had a 12% drop out rate. Therapist variables that are known to be related to negative outcomes like dropping out include: lack of empathy, negative countertransference, and disagreements with patients about the therapy process. Previous research showed that therapeutic orientation is not related to negative outcomes. Therapists who are perform below average on when it comes to patient dropout might be able to use progress monitoring or some other means of measuring their patients’ outcomes to their advantage. These therapists may require more support, supervision, or training to improve their patients’ outcomes.
Creating a Climate for Improving Therapist Expertise
Goldberg, S.B., Babins-Wagner, R., Rousmaniere, T., Berzins, S., Hoyt, W.T., Whipple, J.L., Miller, S.D., & Wampold, B.E. (2016). Creating a climate for therapist improvement: A case study of an agency focused on outcomes and deliberate practice. Psychotherapy, 53, 367-375.
There is a lot of evidence that psychotherapy is effective – a result that has been demonstrated in randomized trials and in naturalistic setting. As I have noted numerous times in this Blog, psychotherapy is as effective as medications but without the side effects and with longer lasting results. However, there is room for improvement, especially in the effectiveness of individual therapists. Health care organizations are increasingly interested in quality improvement, which refers to efforts to make changes in practice that will lead to better patient outcomes, better care, and better professional development. One approach to quality improvement in medicine has been through audit and feedback – which involves measuring a clinician’s practice, comparing the clinician’s outcomes to professional standards, and giving the clinician feedback. In psychotherapy, the analogue is routine outcome monitoring in which patient progress is monitored with standardized measures throughout therapy, and therapists receive ongoing feedback on each patient’s progress relative to the average patient with that disorder. We know that therapists tend not to improve in terms of patient outcomes with experience alone, and some authors argue that one of the things that therapists are missing is good quality information about their clients’ progress. What would happen if an agency or organization decided to make it a priority to provide therapists with quality information about client progress? This paper by Goldberg and colleagues is a case study in which an agency deliberately created a culture of quality feedback and professional development to improve therapist expertise, therapist intentional practice, and client outcomes. The case study is of a community mental health agency in Alberta. Over 5,000 clients were seen by 153 therapists over a 7 year period (2008 to 2015) as part of the study. Clients received at least three sessions of therapy (mean = 6.53 sessions, SD = 5.02), and had a range of disorders typically seen in a mental health clinic. Therapists included 49.7% licensed or provisionally licensed professionals at the masters or doctoral level from different professions (e.g., social work, psychology, pastoral counselling), and 50.3% practicum students. Throughout the 7 years of the study, therapists saw an average of 33.52 clients (SD = 26.24). In 2008, the agency required the staff to collect outcome measures of all clients before each session (although patient scores were not tied to staff performance evaluations). This policy change caused a 40% turnover in clinical staff within 4 months (clearly a large minority of therapists did not want to participate in this new clinic directive)! These staff positions were replaced and staffing was stable after that point. In addition to requiring clinicians to provide measures on all patients (although patients could decline to participate), the agency provided monthly clinical consultations with an external consultant as a means of professional development. During these consultation, clinicians were encouraged to bring cases that were not progressing well in order to get feedback on their most challenging patients. Discussions were organized around therapeutic alliance, i.e., clarifying goals and preferences, and ways of facilitating engagement. The overall results showed a significant decline in distress among patients over the course of treatment. Of most interest was that therapists on average showed a significant improvement in their outcomes over time. That is, contrary to research showing that therapists do not improve over time when left to their own devices, therapists in this agency that received feedback and professional education around difficult cases did improve significantly.
The findings of this study indicate that psychotherapists can improve over time if they receive quality information about client progress, and if they receive professional development that is tied to this information (i.e., concrete suggestions for ways of working with difficult clients). In other words, it is possible for therapist to develop expertise over time under some conditions. A significant challenge in this case study was that a number of therapists left the agency due to the quality improvement efforts. Some therapists are sensitive to or feel threatened by outcome monitoring. However, therapists who remained or who were subsequently hired by the agency showed a reliable increase in their expertise and client outcomes as a result of deliberate intentional practice, quality feedback about client progress, and concrete professional development focused on the therapeutic alliance.
The Poor State of Psychotherapy Research for Indigenous People
Pomerville, A., Burrage, R.L., & Gone, J.P. (2016). Empirical findings from psychotherapy research with indigenous populations: A systematic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 84, 1023-1038.
Indigenous people around the world have a higher incidence of mental illness compared to other ethnic or racial groups. These higher rates may be related to the historical effects of colonization and to current discrimination. Despite this, there is very little empirical research on psychotherapy provided to Indigenous peoples. Psychotherapy, as commonly practiced, has Eurocentric values by emphasizing individuality, independence, rationality, assertiveness, and by sometimes taking an ahistorical present-centered focus. These values may conflict with some Indigenous cultures that emphasize community, interdependence, mysticism, modesty, and the historical context of current functioning. Hence, psychotherapy as typically defined may require adaptations when used with Indigenous groups. In their review, Pomerville and colleagues examine what is currently known about psychotherapy with Indigenous populations. The populations studied in the existing research includes Indigenous peoples of the US, Australia, Canada, Pacific Islands, and New Zealand. There were no psychotherapy studies prior to 1986, and only 23 studies since then. Most studies emphasized some form of cultural adaptation of the treatment. The majority of studies focused on substance abuse, with only a few on anxiety and depression. Only two studies were controlled outcomes studies (i.e., randomized controlled trials considered by many to provide the best evidence from a single study). Research on individual therapy for Indigenous adolescents is completely lacking. The authors concluded that the efficacy of novel or adapted treatments or the generalizability of existing empirically supported treatments to Indigenous people are currently unknown.
The virtual absence of controlled outcome trials of psychotherapies for Indigenous populations is serious gap in the practice of mental health interventions. This state of the research is particularly problematic given the high rates of mental illness and alarming rates of suicide among adolescents in Indigenous populations. Some studies found discontent among Indigenous communities with the current application of empirically supported treatments, and others argue that Indigenous healing be given the same legitimacy despite no controlled outcome research. On the other hand some authors favour training cultural competence among clinicians who practice standard empirically supported treatments. Pomerville and colleagues suggest that in the absence of evidence, tailoring psychotherapy to address the needs of Indigenous clients by taking into account specific practices of their communities may improve retention and outcomes.
When Clients and Therapists Agree on Client Functioning
Bar-Kalifa, E., Atzil-Slonim, D., Rafaeli, E., Peri, T., Rubel, J., & Lutz, W. (2016, October 24). Therapist–client agreement in assessments of clients’ functioning. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ccp0000157.
There has been a lot of research in the past decade on progress monitoring (i.e., regularly providing reliable feedback to therapists on client outcomes, the alliance, and client functioning). This research indicates that client outcomes can be enhanced if therapists have ongoing information on how their client or the relationship is progressing. In this innovative research by Bar-Kalifa and colleagues, the authors studied 77 therapists who saw a total of 384 clients. The therapists were experienced at providing cognitive-behavioral therapy. Clients for the most part had a depressive or anxiety disorder and were seen for an average of 36 sessions. Client outcomes were measured pre- and post-treatment. Emotional and psychological functioning during the past week was rated by the client before each session, and the same measure was given to the therapist to rate their client at the end of each session. After therapists made their rating, they were given ongoing feedback (i.e., progress monitoring) about how their clients’ rated their own functioning during the past week. Did clients and therapists agree on level of client functioning, was this agreement stable over time, and was this agreement or disagreement related to client outcomes? The authors used sophisticated statistical modeling to separate the effects of client ratings of their functioning from therapists’ ratings, and to examine the impact of the changing relationship between therapist and client ratings over time on client outcomes. The authors found little difference in the level of client and therapist ratings of client functioning, and they found that therapists tended to be accurate (i.e., congruent with clients) in tracking client functioning over time. More importantly, the ability of therapists to accurately track client functioning from session to session was related to better client outcomes in terms of key symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The ability of therapists to accurately track client functioning over time was related to better client outcomes. This means that therapists who were aware of their clients’ functioning through feedback methods were better equipped to help their clients. In particular, information about how client functioning was changing from session to session might have allowed therapists to take corrective action for clients who were not doing well from one session to another. This information might have allowed therapists to reconsider a treatment formulation for a particular client, for example. Therapists should be aware of how a client is doing at a particular session, but more importantly therapists should be sensitive to fluctuations in client functioning across sessions. This might be best achieved with ongoing progress monitoring.
Do All Depression Scales Do a Good Job of Measuring Depression?
Fried, E.I. (2016). The 52 symptoms of major depression: Lack of content overlap among seven common depression scales. Journal of Affective Disorders.
Depression is a leading cause of disability in the world and an important reason why people seek psychotherapy. Depression is also the most commonly studied disorder in psychological treatment studies. Measuring depression with self-report or clinician rating scales seems straight forward, but it turns out that it is not. This is important for clinicians because we assume that scales assess depressive symptoms in a reliable way, and that this measurement gives a valid indicator of a patient’s level of depression and improvements in the depressive symptoms. In this review Fried examined the content of the seven of the most common measures of depression including: the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), the Centre for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CESD), and the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HRDS). Many might assume depression to represent a single construct – meaning depression is sometimes thought to represent one unitary thing that is consistent across individuals. Because of that assumption, some might consider depression scales to be interchangeable. But according to Fried, these seven scales listed a total of 52 different symptoms. Using a statistical approach called a Jaccard Index, Fried found that the overlap in symptoms among the different depression scales was low (i.e., different scales seemed to be tapping into different symptoms). When he reviewed the content of each scale, this low overlap seemed clear. For example, the BDI (developed by the founder of CBT) emphasizes cognitive symptoms of depression, the CESD has a number of items that are only indirectly related to depressive symptoms (like interpersonal sensitivity), and the HRDS (often used in medication trials to evaluate side effects) emphasizes somatic symptoms like insomnia, fatigue, and sexual dysfunction. Perhaps this lack of overlap is not so surprising given that the concept of depression is likely multidimensional and not representative of a single uniform construct.
So what does this mean for clinical practice? Many clinicians use a depression scale to assess their patients and monitor their outcomes. Which scale one uses seems to make a difference in terms of what is being measured and what outcomes are monitored. Using the BDI will emphasize the cognitive aspects of depression, whereas ratings with the HRDS may emphasize the somatic aspects of depression. Fried recommends that researchers use more than one scale, and if the findings differ across scales, then that provides more nuanced information about the effects and outcomes of depression and its treatment. Perhaps the same can be said for clinical practice – if clinicians use only one depression scale, then they should be aware of what aspects of depression or what kind of information about their patent’s depression that the scale is providing.
Cultural Adaptation of Psychotherapy
Hall, G.C.N., Ibarak, A.Y., Huang, E.R., Marti, C.N., & Stice, E. (2016). A meta-analysis of cultural adaptations of psychological interventions. Behavior Therapy.
Cultural adaptation of psychological interventions involves identifying cultural contexts of behaviors and developing constructs of mental health functioning relevant to the cultural context. Most cultural adaptation of psychotherapies involves taking existing treatments originally developed for those of European ancestry and adapting them for another specific cultural group or context. However, a few efforts exist in which new treatments were developed within a particular culture to address culture-specific concerns. Eight dimensions along which interventions could be culturally adapted include: language, people, metaphors, content, concepts, goals, methods, and context. Some researchers have expressed concern that cultural adaptation could distance an intervention from its evidence-base, and reduce its effectiveness. In this meta analysis by Hall and colleagues, the researchers look closely at the effects all culturally adapted treatments and prevention methods. They reviewed 78 studies that included nearly 14,000 participants. All studies included culturally adapted interventions for individuals of non-European ancestry. For example, these included studies that adapted CBT interventions for various disorders (mainly depression and anxiety disorders), or studies that match therapist to client in terms of ethnicity. Only 5% of studies created a new intervention developed within a particular culture, whereas the vast majority of studies adapted an existing treatment initially developed for clients of European ancestry. The average effect size was g = .67 (confidence intervals not reported), indicating that culturally adapted interventions produced better outcomes than comparison conditions. Culturally adapted interventions were also more likely to result in better outcomes than the same interventions that were not adapted (g = .52). Effect sizes for cultural adaptation in treatment studies (g = .72) were larger than for prevention studies (g = .25), likely because participants in treatment studies had higher levels of initial psychopathology. There was little evidence that matching therapist and client on ethnicity was helpful.
This meta analysis provides compelling evidence that cultural adaptation of existing treatments can result in more positive outcomes compared to not adapting the same treatment. The effect sizes may even underestimate the true effects of cultural adaptation because the outcome variables like measures of depression were rarely adapted to a specific culture (e.g., depression among Chinese participants may be expressed differently than depression among European participants, and most depression measures were created by and for Europeans).