Fernandez, E., Salem, D., Swift, J. K., & Ramtahal, N. (2015, August 24). Meta-analysis of dropout from cognitive behavioral therapy: Magnitude, timing, and moderators. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication.
“Dropping out” refers to clients who discontinue therapy prematurely and against professional advice. In contrast, “refusing” refers to clients who do not start a therapy that is made available to them. Together, both dropping out and refusing are referred to as “attrition” from therapy. Attrition is a problem for clinicians because of loss of revenue and time, and a problem for clients because their mental health needs remain unmet. In a previous meta analysis that included 669 studies, Swift and Greenberg (2012) reported that the average drop out rate across all therapies was 19.7%. In this meta analysis, Fernandez and colleagues looked specifically at drop outs and refusers in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The authors reviewed 115 studies that reported drop outs, 36 of which also reported on the number of participants who refused treatment before starting. The average percent of patients who refused CBT prior to starting treatment was 15.9%, and the average percent of patients who dropped out after starting CBT was 26.2%. So the total average attrition rate was 42.1%. Compared to any other disorder, patients with depression were significantly more likely to refuse CBT (21.6%) or to drop out (36.4%). It is possible that depressed patients have a harder time summoning the energy to participate in therapy, and experience lower hope, greater social withdrawal, and lower motivation once they initiate CBT. For those receiving e-therapies (e.g., internet, phone, and CD-based treatments), pre-treatment refusal rates were 10% to 15% higher than individual or group CBT, and drop outs from e-therapies were 10% higher compared to individual or group CBT. Those offered e-therapy might be ambivalent about its utility, the therapeutic alliance might be limited, and they might have a lower sense of engagement in the therapeutic process. Finally, a greater number of planned therapy sessions was related to lower attrition rates. Perhaps the promise of more sessions raised clients’ hopes of achieving better outcomes.
These findings suggest that engaging and encouraging clients to participate in the therapy may have to start even before therapy begins. This may involve enhancing readiness by means of motivational interviewing, for example. Clients who are depressed are particularly likely to refuse treatment or drop out, and so clinicians must pay particular attention to the level of motivation and engagement of depressed clients. Although e-therapies are promising in that they may allow a therapist or agency to reach more people including those who live in remote areas, the attrition rate of e-therapies may be unacceptably high. Attrition may lead to demoralization and lowered expectations for treatment among these patients, which may negatively impact future treatment. Perhaps e-therapies should not be considered as a first-line treatment for those who can easily access individual or group therapy. Alternatively, the high attrition rates of e-therapies may be reduced by supplementing the intervention with some in-person therapy sessions to enhance engagement and a therapeutic alliance.