Practice-Based Psychotherapy Research
To Improve The Wellbeing Of Our Community

PPRNet Blog: September 2017


Giorgio A. TascaAt the PPRNet conference in November 2012 over 100 psychotherapy clinicians, researchers, and educators were very keen to receive ongoing information about psychotherapy research that is practice-oriented and presented in an easily readable format. And so the PPRNet Blog was born.

About once a month I will review and summarize two or three published psychotherapy research articles. As part of the summary, I will highlight the practice implications of the research.

Because of copyright issues, we cannot post the full text of the articles, but we will provide a link to the abstract on the publisher's web site. I will also post the author's email address. Most authors are very happy to share their work. So if you want a copy of the article send the author an email with a request for a pdf or reprint.

At the bottom of each review you can post a comment, and comment on your colleagues' comments. I will update these as frequently as possible.

If you have ideas for an article to review or a topic you would like to see covered, please send me an email at pprnet@toh.on.ca.

Giorgio A. Tasca


blogDoes 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.

Practice Implications
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.

Click here for chapter abstract.

Author email: m.barkham@sheffield.ac.uk

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blogTherapists’ 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.

Practice Implications
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.

Click here for article abstract.

Author email: rwestmacott@exchange.hsc.mb.ca

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blogCan a Unified Protocol Bring Together Diverse Evidence-Based Treatments?

Barlow, D.H., Farchione, T., Bullis, J.R., Gallagher, M.W., Murray-Latin, H.,… Cassiello-Robbins, C. (2017). The unified protocol for transdiagnostic treatment of emotional disorders compared with diagnosis-specific protocols for anxiety disorders: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.2164.

One barrier to disseminating and implementing evidence-based treatments is that therapists have to learn to competently apply many different manualized protocols – at least one for each disorder that they treat (depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and others). Barlow and colleagues argue that it is possible to unify many of these protocols under one umbrella, and so they created a unified protocol for this purpose. The unified protocol is an emotion-focused, cognitive-behavioral intervention that targets temperamental characteristics, particularly neuroticism and emotion dysregulation that  underly anxiety, depressive, and related disorders. The unified protocol consists of motivational enhancement followed by 5 treatment modules: (1) mindful emotion awareness, (2) cognitive flexibility, (3) identifying and preventing patterns of emotion avoidance, (4) increasing awareness and tolerance of emotion related physical sensations, and (5) emotion-focused exposure. In this trial, 223 participants with an anxiety disorder (generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive, panic disorder, or social anxiety disorder) were randomly assigned to the unified protocol, or to the evidence-based treatment specific to the disorder, or to a no-treatment wait-list condition. The sample size was large enough to test a hypothesis of equivalent findings between the two treatment conditions. The differences in changes to symptoms between the unified protocol and the specific interventions for each disorder were small and non-significant at post-treatment and at the follow-up assessments. The treatment conditions were significantly more effective than the wait-list control condition. There were no differences between the treatments in drop-out rates or treatment adherence.

Practice Implications
It may be possible for therapists to competently learn to apply a single unified evidence-based treatment for a variety of anxiety disorders that has equivalent outcomes to currently recognized but separate treatment approaches. The unified protocol suggests that the temperamental factors underlying anxiety disorders (emotion dysregulation, emotion avoidance, cognitive inflexibility) can be targeted to treat a wide-range of emotional disorders.

Click here for article abstract.
Author email: dhbarlow@bu.edu.