Practice-Based Psychotherapy Research
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PPRNet Blog: April 2013

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

Giorgio A. Tasca

blogCombining Medication and Psychotherapy in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders

Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change

The Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change is perhaps the most important compendium of psychotherapy research covering a large number of research areas related to psychotherapy. Starting in March 2013, I will review one chapter a month in addition to reviewing psychotherapy research articles. Book chapters have more restrictive copy right rules than journal articles, so I will not provide author email addresses for these chapters. If you are interested, the Handbook table of content can be viewed on Amazon: Handbook table of content on Amazon.

Combining Medication and Psychotherapy in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders

Forand, N.R., DeRubeis, R.J., & Amsterdam, J.D. (2013). Combining medication and psychotherapy in the treatment of major mental disorders. In M.J. Lambert (Ed.) Bergin and Garfield’s handbook of psychotherapy and behaviour change (6th ed.), pp. 735-774. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.

This comprehensive chapter covers evidence for combining medication and psychotherapy for several disorders. This month I report on the section of the chapter on anxiety disorders. Monotherapy of medication or psychotherapy are each effective in treating anxiety disorders, though relapse rates can be high. Simultaneously combining medications and psychotherapy is a common practice that is endorsed by several treatment guidelines. Some may also believe that medication and psychotherapy have additive effects or that those who do not respond to one treatment might respond simultaneously to the other. For panic disorder, short term outcomes slightly favour combined therapy of medications (e.g., antidepressants like SSRIs) and psychotherapy (i.e., that often include exposure). However, long term outcome data indicate that combined treatment was no different than cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) alone. There is also evidence that medications may interfere with exposure-based treatment of panic disorder so that relapse is greater with combination therapy. It is possible for example that medications may suppress fear-related cognitions thus preventing encoding of corrective information, and/or medication may inhibit extinction learning by suppressing cortisol secretion (in the short term) that facilitates consolidation of memories. The evidence for combining medication and psychotherapy for social anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and obsessive compulsive disorder are more mixed but still not clearly supportive of long term superiority of simultaneously combining medications and psychotherapy. Other combination approaches appear to show more promise. For example, there is better evidence for starting with a monotherapy initially and adding an alternative therapy for non-responders. Starting with medications first may allow allows cortisol to normalize over time perhaps reducing medication-induced inhibition of extinction learning. Then treatments such as exposure based CBT or brief dynamic therapy for GAD may be additionally helpful to those who do not respond to medication alone. The existing trials tend not to show evidence of incremental benefit of adding medication after initiating psychotherapy. CBT may be effective in helping individuals taper medications while maintaining treatment gains.

Practice implications

Simultaneously combining medication and psychotherapy for anxiety disorders may be common practice. There is an overall lack of evidence that combining treatments improves outcomes, especially in the longer term. Evidence points to medications interfering with the effectiveness of psychotherapy when they are initiated simultaneously. Compared to monotherapy, combined treatments are more complex, time-consuming, expensive, and expose the patient to increased side effect risk. Combination treatments may be best reserved for those who are refractory to initial monotherapy.

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blogPremature Discontinuation in Adult Psychotherapy

Swift, J.K. & Greenberg, R.P. (2012). Premature discontinuation in adult psychotherapy: A meta analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 80, 557-589.

Premature termination or drop out from psychotherapy has long been a significant problem for the practice of psychotherapy. Drop out can be variously defined as: not completing the course of treatment, unilateral termination on the patient's part without therapist input, and not attending a specified number of sessions, among others. One of the largest meta analyses on the topic was done in 1993, and at that time the average drop out rate was 46.86%. This is a serious problem for a number of reasons. First, the average patient needs approximately 18 sessions to improve, and so early dropping out means that these patients do not benefit. Second, therapists can become demoralized at such drop out rates, and therapists who are not confident in their procedures are less likely to be effective. Third, the agency or practice loses important sources of funding or revenue. And fourth, society in general continues to manage the burden of a significant portion of its population not being at their best. The meta analysis by Swift and Greenberg (2012) is the largest of its kind, comprising 669 studies representing 83, 834 patients. The average drop out rate, largely defined as not completing treatment and unilateral termination without therapist input, was 19.79%. This appears to be a substantial drop from the previous 1993 number of 46.86%, but still represents one in five psychotherapy patients. Swift and Greenberg suggest that perhaps the more recent focus on evidence based treatments and short term treatments, and more systematic and consistent reporting of drop outs from studies may account for the lower numbers. No differences were found in drop out rates between treatment orientations (e.g., CBT vs others) and no differences in treatment format (e.g., individual vs group). Time-limited (20.7%) and manualized (18.3%) treatments tended to have lower drop out rates than non-time-limited (29%) and non-manualized (28.3%) treatments. Patients with eating disorders (29.3%) and personality disorders (25.6%) had the highest drop out rates. As did patients who were younger and less educated. Drop out rates in effectiveness studies (26%), that are more similar to everyday clinical practice, was higher than highly controlled randomized trials (17%). Trainee therapists (26.6%) tended to have higher drop out rates than experienced therapists (17.2%).

Practice Implications

At least one in five clients are likely to drop out of psychotherapy. Clinicians should particularly work on retention with younger clients and those with a personality or eating disorder diagnosis. Extra efforts to prevent dropout should also be emphasized for trainees and in university-based clinic settings. A number of strategies for reducing premature discontinuation in therapy have been identified, including discussing expectations regarding therapy roles and behaviors, providing education about adequate treatment duration, addressing motivation, repairing alliance ruptures, using therapist feedback, addressing client preferences, providing time-limited interventions, and increasing perspective convergence in the psychotherapy dyad. A number of these are described in greater detail in the following blog entry.

View the Premature Discontinuation in Adult Psychotherapy abstract.
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blogHow to Reduce Premature Termination in Your Psychotherapy Practice

Swift, J.K., Greenberg, R.P., Whipple, J.L., & Kominiak, N. (2012). Practice recommendations for reducing premature termination in therapy. Professional Psychology, 43, 379-387.

As discussed in a previous blog entry, Swift and Greenberg (2012) found that almost 20% of adult individual therapy patients drop out of therapy. Dropping out is generally defined as clients unilaterally terminating psychotherapy prior to benefitting fully and against their therapist recommendation. In this paper, Swift and colleagues review five methods with the best research evidence to reduce premature termination. (1) Providing education about duration and course of therapy. Research indicates that 25% of clients expect to recover after only two sessions of therapy, 44% after four sessions, and 62% expect to recover after 8 sessions. However the research literature indicates that it takes 13 to 18 sessions for 50% of clients to recover. Further, although some clients improve quickly and maintain that, some clients may feel worse before they get better, especially if the symptoms are related to painful feelings or events. So aligning client expectations about the length of treatment and the course of treatment may reduce dropping out. This education should be research based to increase the credibility of the information. (2) Providing role induction. Clients who are naıve to therapy may start not knowing what behaviors or roles are most appropriate on their part and could feel lost or like they are doing things wrong. Role induction refers to providing clients with some pre-treatment education or orientation about appropriate therapy behaviors. This could be done by video, verbally, or in writing. A meta analysis found that pre-therapy role induction increases attendance and reduces drop outs. (3) Incorporating client preferences. Client preferences include wants or desires concerning the type of treatment that is to be used, the type of therapist one would like to work with, and the roles and behaviors that are to take place in therapy. A recent meta analysis found that clients who had their preferences accommodated were almost half as likely to drop out of treatment prematurely compared with clients whose preferences were not taken into account. (4) Strengthening early hope. Although it is important that clients do not hold unrealistic expectations (i.e., recovery after only two sessions), it is also important that they have a general hope that therapy can help them get better. Research evidence shows that expectations for change explain as much as 15% of the variance in therapy outcomes. (5) Fostering the therapeutic alliance. The therapeutic alliance involves agreeing on goals and tasks of therapy, and a positive bond between client and therapist. A rupture in the alliance has been associated with dropping out of therapy, and a previous meta analysis found that a stronger alliance was associated with fewer drop outs.

Practice Implications

Therapists can do 5 things that are research supported to reduce patient drop outs. (1) Provide education about duration and course of therapy.  Practicing clinicians can help their clients to develop realistic expectations about duration and recovery prior to the start of therapy. Clinicians working with a more severely disturbed population or working from an orientation that espouses longer treatment durations may want to alter the education they provide to better fit their clients. (2) Provide role induction. Clinicians can provide education about the “jobs” of both the client and the therapist, such as who is expected to do most of the talking and who will be responsible for structuring or directing sessions. This type of induction should also include a discussion of the rationale for the approach that will be used. (3) Incorporate client preferences. Accommodating client preferences does not mean the therapist should automatically use the client’s preferred methods. Often clients are unaware of what treatment options are available or best suited for their particular problems. Instead, therapists should consider sharing their knowledge about the particular disorder and the nature of different approaches to the treatment of those problems with clients. Clients can then share their preferences regarding those treatment options with the therapist and work collaboratively toward a decision about which approach might be best. (4) Strengthen early hope. Therapists should express confidence that the therapy will work for their patient. Knowing the research evidence on the efficacy of psychotherapy will increase the therapist's credibility in making such statements. (5) Foster a therapeutic alliance. Efforts to foster the therapeutic alliance should occur early on in therapy when the risk of premature termination is high, and as also therapy progresses. Early efforts should focus on making sure there is an agreement on the goals and tasks before jumping to treatment interventions.

View the How to Reduce Premature Termination in Your Psychotherapy Practice abstract.
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