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
Therapist Multicultural Orientation and Client Outcomes
Hayes, J. A., Owen, J., Nissen-Lie, H. A. (2017). The contribution of client culture to differential therapist effectiveness. In L. G. Castonguay and C. E. Hill (Eds.) How and why are some therapists better than others? Understanding therapist effects (Ch. 9). Washington: American Psychological Association.
Some therapists may have better client outcomes because they are more adept at working with clients of different cultures. In this chapter, Hayes and colleagues define culture as referring to a group of people who share common history, values, beliefs, symbols, and rituals. The cultural groups to which one may belong include those based on: gender, religion, ethnicity, disability status, sexual orientation, race, and age, among others. Research suggests that culturally adapted therapy is more effective than unadapted therapy for racial minority clients. This may be due to more effective therapists being able to explain clients’ mental health problems and provide a rationale for specific therapy interventions that is congruent with the client’s beliefs. The most common model of multicultural therapy is multicultural competence, which is defined by having knowledge of various cultural groups, skills to navigate cultural processes, and self-awareness of personal bias. However, Hayes and colleagues argue for a multicultural orientation model in which a therapist is humble, respectful, and open to addressing culture in therapy. Whereas multicultural therapy is about acquiring knowledge, multicultural orientation refers to a way of being with clients. Hayes and colleagues review the research literature that indicates that therapists with cultural expertise are those who acknowledge when they do not have specific knowledge about a culture, have a high tolerance for not knowing, and at the same time recognize that cultural socialization affect clients’ mental health. A multicultural orientation is intended to bolster and support current therapeutic practices. For example, therapists may recognize that they need to better understand clients’ heritage when deciding whether or not to challenging a deeply held core belief related to the clients’ culture. In support of this, Hayes and colleagues review the research that indicates that: (1) client perception of therapist humility is related to client outcomes, especially for clients with a strong cultural identity; (2) clients who perceived that their therapist missed opportunities to discuss cultural issues in session had worse therapy outcomes; (3) clients who perceived therapists as culturally oriented experienced the therapy as more credible; and (4) therapist cultural comfort was related to better client outcomes.
The authors suggest that therapists ask open-ended questions to clients regarding their cultural identity, such as asking the role that religion and spirituality play in their lives. This would allow therapists to learn about client cultural identity in the client’s own words. It is particularly important for therapists to maintain a stance of humility and cultural comfort, and to attend to opportunities to work productively with cultural issues in therapy in order to improve their clients’ outcomes.
Does it Matter Which Therapist a Client Gets?
Barkham, M., Lutz, W., Lambert, M., & Saxon, D. (2017). Therapist effects, effective therapists, and the law of variability. In L.G. Castonguay and C.E. Hill (Eds.) How and why are some therapists better than others? Understanding therapist effects. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Psychotherapy research has often focused on the differences between treatment types (CBT, interpersonal psychotherapy, psychodynamic therapy), which has overshadowed research on what makes for an effective therapist. Psychotherapists represent the most costly important component of psychotherapy, and only recently has research begun to catch up to the importance of therapist effects. The term “therapist effects” refers to differences between therapists (i.e., variability) in their clients’ outcomes. In this chapter, Barkham and colleagues review some of the research on effective therapists. Best estimates of therapist effects suggest that differences between therapists account for about 8% of client outcomes – which is considered a medium effect and larger than the variance accounted for by the type of therapy that a client receives. Psychotherapy research often tries to control for therapist effects by training therapists to adhere to a manual, however adherence to a manual does not substantially reduce therapist effects, and adherence is not related to patient outcomes. The implication is that which therapist a client sees matters to the client’s mental health outcomes. The best research on the topic indicates that about 20% of therapists are substantially better than the average therapist, and 20% are substantially worse than the average. (The good news is that 60% of therapists [the average] are equally and positively effective). In that study of 119 therapists, the least effective therapists had about 40% of their clients recover, whereas the most effective therapists had about 76% of their clients recover. In other words, the better therapists were almost twice as effective as the worse therapists. In a re-examination of previous data, Barkham and colleagues looked at whether other variables, like client symptom severity, played a role in therapist effects. They found that differences among therapists was higher as client baseline severity increased. That is, the gap between better and worse therapists increased when client symptoms were more severe and complex. Good therapists were better equipped to handle more complex cases.
There are important differences between therapists in their effectiveness, and this makes a difference to clients. It is particularly important for clients with more severe symptoms to be matched with more effective therapists. Previous research indicates that the level of therapist interpersonal skills (alliance, empathy, warmth, emotional expression, verbal skills) can account for significant proportion of therapist effects, and so training therapists in these interpersonal skills will improve client outcomes. Also, therapists who receive continuous reliable feedback throughout therapy about their client’s symptom levels can also drastically reduce client drop-outs and the number of clients who get worse during treatment.
Therapists’ Perspectives on Psychotherapy Termination
Westmacott, R. & Hunsley, J. (2017). Psychologists’ perspectives on therapy termination and the use of therapy engagement/retention strategies. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 24, 687–696.
The average psychotherapy client attends a median of about 3 to 5 sessions, which is substantially less than the number of sessions the average client needs to realize a clinically significant decline in symptoms. Premature termination (clients ending therapy unilaterally) occurs in 19% of cases in research trials and in as many as 38% of clients in community practices. And so premature termination is mental health problem for clients and an economic problem for therapists and agencies. Clients terminate therapy prematurely for a variety of reasons including: dissatisfaction with therapy or the therapist, achieving their goals, and practical barriers (appointment times, travel, cost). Therapists tend to underestimate the proportion of unilateral terminations from their practice, and underestimate negative outcomes and client negative perceptions of therapy and therapists. In this study, Westmacott and Hunsley, surveyed psychologists who provide psychotherapy (N=269) on their perspectives on their clients’ reasons for termination and the strategies they use to retain their clients in therapy. Therapists reported that 33.3% of their clients terminated prematurely, which is somewhat lower than the percentage reported in previous research. Most psychologists (65.7%) tended to attribute the most important reasons for premature termination before the third session to clients’ lack of motivation to change (rated as very important or important on a scale). A much smaller percentage (15.8%) attributed waiting too long for services as the most important reason for premature termination before session 3. The most important reason for premature termination after the third session was most often attributed to clients reaching their treatment goals (54.8%). Regarding strategies to retain clients - almost all psychologists (96.8%) indicated that they fostered a strong alliance, 74.3% indicated that they negotiated at treatment plan, 58.0% prepared clients for therapy, 38.7% used motivational enhancement strategies, 33.0% used client outcome monitoring, and 17.8% used appointment reminders.
This survey of psychologists suggests that psychotherapists may somewhat underestimate the number of clients who prematurely terminate therapy. Psychotherapists may also overly attribute dropping out to client-focused factors (low motivation, achieving outcomes), rather than therapist-focused factors (dissatisfaction with therapist or therapy), setting-focused factors (negative impression of the office and staff), or practically-focused factors (appointment times, cost). Many therapists reported using alliance-building and negotiating a treatment plan to retain clients. However, few therapists used other evidence-based methods like systematic outcome monitoring, and fewer still used appointment reminders. Therapists should consider therapist-focused and setting-focused reasons for client termination, and to use outcome monitoring and appointment reminders to reduce drop-outs from their practices.
What Characterizes Effective Therapists?
Wampold, B. E., Baldwin, S. A., Holtforth, M. G., & Imel, Z. E. (2017). What characterizes effective therapists. In L.G. Castonguay and C.E. Hill (Eds.) How and why are some therapists better than others? Understanding therapist effects. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
The research on therapist effects indicates that some therapists are more effective than others. Previous research showed that therapist characteristics like age, race, ethnicity, gender, and experience are not consistently related to patient outcomes. Neither is therapist competence and adherence to a treatment approach. In this chapter, Wampold and colleagues ask the question: what characterizes effective therapists? The research is complicated because it is difficult to disentangle therapist effects from patient factors. That is, it is possible that some clients (i.e., those who are more motivated, likeable, and psychologically minded) might create favorable conditions for some therapists to be more effective. However, recent advances in statistical methods have allowed researchers to isolate the effects of therapist characteristics from patient factors. Based on this new research, Wampold and colleagues identified four characteristics of effective therapists. (1) The ability to form an alliance across a range of patients. The therapeutic alliance is defined as the agreement on tasks and goals of therapy, and the affective bond between therapist and patient. Alliance is reliably associated with good patient outcomes. Research shows that therapists and not clients are primarily responsible for the alliance-outcome relationship. (2) Facilitative interpersonal skills – which includes verbal fluency, warmth, empathy, and emotional expression. These skills in a therapist are a strong predictor of patient outcomes. (3) Professional self doubt – or healthy skepticism about one’s abilities and skills leading to self-reflective practice has also been found to predict positive patient outcome. (4) Deliberate practice - defined as individualized training activities especially designed to improve specific aspects of an individual’s performance through repetition and successive refinement. The amount of time outside of therapy that therapists engage in improving targeted therapeutic skills predicted patient outcomes.
Some therapists are better than others - and demographics, professional affiliation, training, and adherence to a manual do not differentiate better therapists. Four factors are emerging as indicators of better therapists. Ability to develop, maintain, and repair a therapeutic alliance is well known to predict patient outcomes and it appears that therapists are largely responsible for the condition of the alliance. Therapists’ ability to be verbal, warm, and empathic is also key to patient outcomes. Professional skepticism about one’s abilities that lead to reflective practice is also an important characteristic in order to continually improve one’s abilities and monitor one’s outcomes. And, finally therapists who spend time outside of therapy deliberately and repetitively practicing skills will achieve better patient outcomes.
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.