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
Clients’ Experiences of Psychotherapy
Levitt, H.M., Pomerville, A., & Surace, F.I. (2016). A qualitative meta-analysis examining clients’ experiences in psychotherapy: A new agenda. Psychological Bulletin. Online First Publication, April 28, 2016.
Much of psychotherapy research over the past several decades has focused on therapy outcomes, with the general conclusion that outcomes are equivalent across major psychotherapy orientations. Some of the effects of psychotherapy can be explained by relational factors (e.g., therapeutic alliance). There is also a growing and interesting line of research about therapist variables and therapist effects (see this month’s PPRNet blog on differences between therapists’ outcomes in a large UK sample). Many experts argue that client effects and characteristics account for the largest amount of variance in therapy outcomes. That is, who clients are and what experiences they have are the largest determinants of whether psychotherapy will be helpful. However the client’s experience is often neglected in psychotherapy research reviews. Levitt and colleagues conducted a qualitative meta analysis of qualitative studies of clients’ experiences in psychotherapy. Qualitative research typically involves interviewing clients about their experiences in therapy and coding the transcripts of these interviews. Methods of synthesizing and categorizing themes from client narratives, such as the grounded theory method and thematic analysis, create a rich source of understanding about how clients experience change in psychotherapy. Levitt and colleagues applied qualitative methods to synthesize 109 qualitative studies of over 1400 clients as a way of analysing this research. Six clusters or themes emerged from their qualitative meta analysis: (1) clients experienced therapy as a process of identifying and understanding personal patterns; (2) clients who felt understood and had their experiences validated were able to internalize the therapist’s voice; (3) clients experienced the structure of therapy (spacing of sessions and time allotted to sessions) and therapist expertise as generating credibility for the therapy, but also at times the structure reduced clients’ experience of therapeutic relationship’s authenticity; (4) clients experienced an inherent power differential with therapists that was sometimes compounded by differences in race, gender, and class; (5) clients played a major role in the therapeutic process, and clients felt pleased when they were invited to take the lead; (6) clients’ experiences of being cared-for supported their ability to recognize maladaptive patterns and address unmet vulnerable needs.
This qualitative meta analysis highlights the important role played by the client’s experience and by the therapy context in promoting good outcomes. The results suggested that better outcomes may be achieved when: (1) therapists encourage clients’ curiosity about their cognitive, emotional and relational patterns; (2) therapists engage in an accepting and caring relationship in order to help clients decrease their defensiveness about vulnerable topics; (3) therapists maintain the therapeutic structure in order to increase clients’ sense of confidence in the process; (4) therapists explicitly acknowledge power differences and repair alliance ruptures; (5) therapists encourage clients to take an active role in therapy as a means of self-healing; and (6) therapists regularly check with clients about the fit of interventions, in-session needs, and treatment goals.
Therapists Affect Patient Dropout and Deterioration
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. Advanced online publication, DOI: 10.1002/cpp.2028.
Outcomes for patients receiving psychotherapy are generally positive, but not always. For example, patients might drop out of therapy (i.e., unilaterally end therapy). In clinical trials, the average drop out rate is somewhere between 17% and 26% of patients. Also, patients might deteriorate during therapy (i.e., show a reliable negative change in symptoms from pre- to post-therapy). On average, about 8.2% of patients show a reliable deterioration after therapy. In this large study from a practice-based research network in the UK, Saxon and colleagues were interested in estimating the effect that therapists had on patient drop out and deterioration. Therapist effects refer to differences between therapists and the effects of this difference on patient outcomes. The authors were also interested in whether therapist effects predicted negative outcomes after controlling for therapist case-mix (i.e., patient variables like severity of symptoms, risk of self harm). Their study included 85 therapists who treated more than 10,000 adult patients over a 10-year period. Each therapist saw between 30 and 468 patients at one of 14 sites in the UK. About half of patients had moderate to severe depressive symptoms, and/or moderate to severe anxiety symptoms prior to starting therapy. Outcomes were measured with a reliable and valid psychometric instrument at pre- and post-treatment. The proportion of patients who dropped out of therapy was 33.8%. Patients who dropped out attended an average of 2.8 sessions (SD = 1.91), whereas treatment completers attended an average of 6.1 sessions (SD = 2.68). About 23.5% of therapists had drop out rates that were significantly worse than average. These below average therapists (n = 13) had 49% of their patients drop out, whereas above average therapists (n = 20) had only 12% of their patients drop out. Most patients who completed therapy improved (72.2%), but about 7.2% of patients deteriorated to some degree. The average therapist (i.e., 74% of therapists) had 4.6% of their patients who got worse, whereas below average therapists (i.e., 4.7% of therapists) had up to 14.9% of their patients who got worse. That is, almost 3 times as many patients deteriorated with below average therapists.
We know from previous studies that the type and amount of therapist training or theoretical orientation are not predictive of patient outcomes. However, previous research does suggest that therapists’ lack of empathy, negative countertransference, over-use of transference interpretations, and disagreement with patients about therapy process was associated with negative outcomes. Patient safety concerns might necessitate below average therapists to be identified and provided with greater support, supervision, and training.
Is Therapist Effectiveness a Stable Characteristic?
Kraus, D. R., Bentley, J. H., Alexander, P. C., Boswell, J. F., Constantino, M. J., Baxter, E. E., & Castonguay, L. G. (2016). Predicting therapist effectiveness from their own practice-based evidence. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 84(6), 473-483.
There is lots of evidence that there are differences between therapists in their patients’ outcomes. Some studies estimate that 5% to 7% of patient outcomes can be attributed to differences between therapists’ abilities and style of delivering treatment. But most of these studies measured outcomes only once, and so they could not estimate if therapist effects are stable across time. Further, many of these studies used only a global measure of patient distress as an outcome and did not measure domain-specific outcomes (e.g., depression, anxiety, mania, alcohol dependence, etc.). In this study by Krauss and colleagues, 59 therapists who treated 3,540 patients were included. Therapists had on average 10 years of experience and were from a variety of professions (psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, counsellors etc.). The settings included mental health clinics, independent practice, hospitals, and others. The authors went to some effort to control for case-mix variables such as client problem difficulty, length of treatment, caseload size, and other variables. Client outcomes were measured for 12 different domains ranging from depression to sexual dysfunction to substance abuse. First, outcomes were assessed for 30 patients of each therapist, and then these were compared to outcomes of the same therapist’s next 30 patients. Therapists were classified as “exceptional”, “average”, or “below average” based on their patients’ outcomes. Fifty-seven percent of therapists who were rated as exceptional with the first 30 patients were likely to remain exceptional or above average with the next 30 patients. In other words, effective therapists tended to remain effective over time. Therapists had better patient outcomes when it came to depression, suicidality, and substance abuse, but therapists tended not to have as good outcomes when it came to mania, and sexual functioning.
Effective therapists tend to remain effective over time for particular client problem areas. However, therapists are seldom effective for more than 4 or 5 client presenting problems, and less than 10 % of therapists are effective with all client problem areas. Therefore patients with differing problems are likely to achieve better or worse outcomes depending on the particular therapist and his or her strengths. Therapists can regularly assess patient outcomes and use that information to help with continuing education to improve their practice for a particular problem area.
Are Therapists Uniformly Effective Across Patient Outcomes?
Nissen-Lie, H. A., Goldberg, S. B., Hoyt, W. T., Falkenström, F., Holmqvist, R., Nielsen, S. L., & Wampold, B. E. (2016). Are therapists uniformly effective across patient outcome domains? A study of therapist effectiveness in two different treatment contexts. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Advance online publication.
What characterizes more or less effective therapists? Are some therapists more effective for certain types of client mental health problems? In this study by Nissen-Lie and colleagues the authors look at whether therapists are skilled across patient problem domains. They conducted two studies with over 6000 patients and almost 200 therapists. Patients were assessed with common outcome measures of mental health domains that included: social functioning, work functioning, relationship functioning and symptom distress. Therapists included psychologists and social work professionals (70%) and trainees (30%) who saw at least 10 patients each. Theoretical orientations ranged from CBT, psychodynamic, and supportive psychotherapy. Patients were symptomatic at the start of therapy and primarily had problems with anxiety and depression. Patient symptoms on average improved so that psychotherapy had a moderate to large effect. Therapists did not differ in caseload mix regarding client severity. The authors reported that the client mental health domains (i.e., symptom severity, work functioning, social functioning, and interpersonal functioning) were relatively distinct or unrelated areas (i.e., the domains were largely uncorrelated). The authors then calculated change scores for each client domain area and used these change scores in a multilevel factor analysis. They wanted to see if a therapist’s clients achieved greater change in one client domain versus in another client domain. The results showed that if clients of a therapist changed in one domain (e.g., depression) then that outcome was highly related to change in another domain (e.g., interpersonal functioning). In other words, if a therapist was effective (or ineffective) in reducing client symptoms, then that therapist was also likely effective (or ineffective) in reducing, work, social, and relationship problems.
The results support the notion of therapist uniformity in terms of client outcome domains. In other words effective therapists tend to be effective with many types of client problems (but perhaps not all client problems – see my blog this month of the Kraus et al. (2016) study). The authors argue that effective therapists have three key qualities: flexibility in adapting treatments to clients, sensitivity to differences between clients, and responsiveness to clients’ reactions to therapeutic interventions. That is, effective therapists are willing and able to self correct when required.
Therapist Interpersonal Skills Account for Patient Outcomes
Schottke, H., Fluckiger, C., Goldberg, S.B., Eversmann, & Lange, J. (2016). Predicting psychotherapy outcome based on therapist interpersonal skills: A five-year longitudinal study of a therapist assessment protocol. Psychotherapy Research, DOI: 0.1080/10503307.2015.1125546
Therapist effects, or differences between therapists, account for an important amount of patient outcomes (i.e., 5% to 7%). Two therapist characteristics most consistently proposed as predictors of patient outcomes are: therapist competence/adherence to a treatment manual, and therapist interpersonal skills. A recent meta analysis found that therapist adherence or competence were not significantly related to patient outcomes. However, there has been very little research on therapists’ interpersonal capacities. These capacities might include factors like: empathy, warmth, ability to respond well to patient hostility, sensitivity to interpersonal process in therapy, and ability to address alliance ruptures. In this paper, Schottke and colleagues (2016) conducted a five year study with 41 therapists and 264 patients in which they assessed the impact of therapist interpersonal skills on patient outcomes. The therapists were all post-graduate trainees and who practiced a manual oriented cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or psychodynamic therapy (PDT). The patients were adults mainly treated for depression, and many had co-morbid problems. What was unique about the study is that the therapist interpersonal skill was rated before they received formal training, and the rating were done by trained reliable judges. The judges rated the therapist trainees on interpersonal skills including: clear and positive communication, empathy, warmth, managing criticism, and willingness to cooperate. Patients were assessed pre- and post-treatment on general symptom outcomes. Higher therapist interpersonal skills were reliably associated with better patient outcomes, even after controlling for symptoms severity and number of comorbid diagnoses. In this study, therapist interpersonal capacities measured before receiving formal training and supervision was a significant predictor of patient outcomes after training was initiated.
The findings of this study indicate that therapists’ talent should in part be characterized by interpersonal competencies that include clear communication, empathy, respectful management of criticism, warmth, and willingness to cooperate. It could be that therapist trainees with high interpersonal skills engage in an extensive degree of deliberate practice that may account for better patient outcomes.
How Important are the Common Factors in Psychotherapy?
Wampold, B. E. (2015). How important are the common factors in psychotherapy? An update. World Psychiatry, 14, 270-277.
What is the evidence for the common factors in psychotherapy and how important are they to patient outcomes? In their landmark book, The Great Psychotherapy Debate, Wampold and Imel cover this ground is some detail, and I reviewed a number of the issues raised in their book in the PPRNet blog over the past year. This article by Wampold provides a condensed summary of the research evidence for the common factors in psychotherapy, including: therapeutic alliance, therapist empathy, client expectations, cultural adaptation of treatments, and therapist effects. Therapeutic alliance refers to therapist and client agreement on tasks and goals of therapy, and the bond between therapist and client. A meta-analysis of the therapeutic alliance included over 200 studies of 14,000 patients and found a medium effect of alliance on patient outcomes (d = .57) across a variety of disorders and therapeutic orientations. A number of studies are also concluding that the alliance consistently predicts good outcomes, but that early good outcomes do not consistently predict a subsequent higher alliance. Further, therapists and not patients were primarily responsible for the alliance-outcome relationship. Another common factor, empathy, is thought to be necessary for cooperation, goal sharing, and social interactions. A meta-analysis of therapist empathy that included 59 studies and over 3,500 patients found that the relationship between empathy and patient outcome was moderately large (d = .63). Patient expectations that they will receive benefit from a structured therapy that explains their symptoms can be quite powerful in increasing hope for relief. A meta-analysis of 46 studies found a small but statistically significant relationship (d = .24) between client expectations and outcome. Cultural adaptation of treatments refers to providing an explanation of the symptoms and treatment that are acceptable to the client in the context of their culture. A meta analysis of 21 studies found that cultural adaptation of evidence-based treatments by using an explanation congruent with the client’s culture was more effective than unadapted evidence-based treatments, and the effect was modest (d = .32). Finally, therapist effects, refers to some therapists consistently achieving better outcomes than other therapists regardless of the patients’ characteristics or treatments delivered. A meta analysis of 17 studies of therapist effects in naturalistic settings found a moderately large effect of therapist differences (d = .55).
These common factors of psychotherapy appear to be more important to patient outcomes than therapist adherence to a specific protocol and therapist competence in delivering the protocol. As Wampold argues, therapist competence should be redefined as the therapist’s ability to form stronger alliances across a variety of patients. Effective therapists tend to have certain qualities, including: a higher level of facilitative interpersonal skills, a tendency to express more professional self doubt, and they engage in more time outside of therapy practicing various psychotherapy skills.