Practice-Based Psychotherapy Research
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PPRNet Blog: April 2014


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


blogResearch on Training and Continuing Education in Psychotherapy

Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change

Starting in March 2013 I will review one chapter a month from the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change 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 and sections of the book can be read on Google Books: Handbook on Google Books.

Research on Training and Continuing Education in Psychotherapy

Hill, C. & Knox, S. (2013). Training and supervision in psychotherapy. In M.E. Lambert (Ed.), Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, 6th Edition (pp. 775-811). New York: Wiley.

Research on training and supervision in psychotherapy has proven to be very difficult to conduct. Part of the difficulty with the research is that the process under study is highly complex with many interacting variables. Therapists and supervisors have different personal qualities, patients have different levels of problems, training programs differ, supervision styles differ, and therapists and supervisors differ in terms of experience, case load, knowledge, and training background. Nevertheless there exists a moderately large literature on training, supervision, and continuing education in psychotherapy. However, the findings so far have been mixed and somewhat disappointing. In their chapter in the Handbook, Hill and Knox (2013) tackle the difficult task of summarizing this literature and giving some coherence to the findings. Is training and supervision effective? Hill and Knox tentatively conclude that the answer is “yes”. They provide some evidence that novice therapists can be trained in helping skills, that trainees improve over the course of training, that supervision enhances trainees awareness of self and others and improves their autonomy, and that experienced therapists, including those in the community can be trained to use manuals. Despite these positive findings, the existing literature also provided some sobering results. These less supportive findings include: that nonsupervised therapists did not differ from supervised therapists on therapy alliance and patient outcomes, that supervision sometimes has negative effects on trainees and their patients, that therapist experience may not be related to better patient outcomes, and that some highly facilitative non-professionals can be just as effective as trained therapists. What contributes to making training and supervision effective? The research in psychotherapy training and medical education is clear on this question: hands-on experience is key to learning a practice-based skill such as psychotherapy. Practice is the most helpful component of skills training. In medical education research, systematic reviews have shown that traditional didactic learning (i.e., classroom style lectures) had no significant impact on physician behaviors or patient outcomes. However, interactive programs (especially supervised rehearsal of skills) did have a significant positive impact on physician behaviors and patient outcomes. Furthermore, psychotherapy supervisees reported that supervisors who were open, empathic, and who provided supportive nurturance in the context of a good supervisory alliance were most helpful to trainees to develop and improve their clinical skills.

Practice Implications

Practicing clinicians who want to get the most out of continuing education should look for opportunities in which they get hands-on experience and continuous supervision in providing the psychotherapy intervention. Other than acquiring a limited amount of knowledge, didactic training alone without practice will likely have little impact on practice. The research also indicates that supervisors and trainees who are able to develop a good supervisory alliance, and supervisors who are open and empathic are more likely to result in improved psychotherapy skills in trainees and better outcomes in patients. Binder and Henry (2010) describe the importance of "deliberate practice" in psychotherapy training and continuing education that includes: performing a task at an appropriate level of difficulty, receiving immediate and informative feedback from a supervisor, and having the opportunity to repeat the skill and correct errors.

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blogMedication Versus Psychotherapy for Depressive and Anxiety Disorders

Cuijpers P, Sijbrandij M, Koole SL, Andersson G, Beekman AT, Reynolds III CF (2013). The efficacy of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy in treating depressive and anxiety disorders: A meta-analysis of direct comparisons. World Psychiatry, 12, 137-148.

Both psychotherapy and antidepressant medications are efficacious treatments for depression and anxiety disorders. However, there remains some debate about whether they are equally effective for all disorders, and whether psychotherapy and antidepressants are equally efficacious for each disorder. As I indicated in the March 2014 blog, antidepressant medications alone have become the first line of treatment. for many who have depressive and anxiety disorders. However, a recent meta-analysis concluded that monotherapy with medication alone was not optimal treatment for most patients, and that adding psychotherapy results in clinically meaningful improvement for most patients. Cuijpers and colleagues (2013) reported on an overall meta analysis of the studies in which psychotherapy and medication were directly compared to each other in adults with depressive disorders, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They combined the effects of 67 studies including 5,993 patients. Forty studies included depressive disorders and 27 included anxiety disorders. Most therapies (49 of 78) were characterized as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and the others included interpersonal psychotherapy, psychodynamic therapy, and non-directive counselling. Most patients were seen in individual treatment for 12 to 18 sessions. The most commonly prescribed medications were selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). The overall mean effect size for the difference between psychotherapy and medications was almost zero, indicating no significant difference. Regarding specific disorders and treatments, pharmacotherapy was more effective for dysthymia, but the effect size was small. By contrast, psychotherapy was more effective for OCD, and the effect size was moderately large. SSRI had similar effects to psychotherapy, but non-directive counselling was less effective than pharmacotherapy, though the effect was small.

Practice Implications

This meta-analysis by Cuijpers and colleagues found that the differences between psychotherapy and antidepressant medications were non-existent for major depression, panic disorder, and SAD. Although antidepressants were more effective for dysthymia, the difference was small and disappeared when study quality was controlled, and so this finding is not reliable. Psychotherapy was clearly more effective for OCD even after adjusting for study quality and other factors. This is the first meta analysis to show the relative superiority of psychotherapy for OCD, and suggests psychotherapy as a first line treatment. The meta-analysis only looked at post treatment results and not at longer term effects. There is evidence from other research showing that antidepressants do not have strong effects after patients stop taking them, whereas psychotherapy’s effects tend to be sustained in the longer term.

View the Medication Versus Psychotherapy for Depressive and Anxiety Disorders article.
Author email: p.cuijpers@psy.vu.nl.

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blogOrganizational Instability May be Related to Premature Termination from Psychotherapy

Werbarta, A., Andersson, H., & Sandell, R. (2014). Dropout revisited: Patient- and therapist-initiated discontinuation of psychotherapy as a function of organizational instability. Psychotherapy Research, Online first publication: DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2014.883087.

Premature termination of psychotherapy in mental health care is a problem both in terms of patient outcomes and in terms of financial consequences for providers. Drop out rates for psychotherapy in general range from 20% to 75% with an average of 50%. In my April 2013 blog I reported on a meta analysis by Swift and Greenberg (2012) in which they reported an overall drop out rate of 20% in randomized control trials; but the average drop out rate could be up to 38% in randomized trials depending on how premature termination was defined (failure to complete a treatment, attending less than half of sessions, stopping attending, or therapist judgment). Drop outs are commonly believed to represent therapeutic failures. Much of the research to predict psychotherapy non-completion has focused on patient variables like age, gender, symptom severity and others. This implicitly puts the responsibility for dropping out on the patient. Swift and Greenberg (2012) found that on average young, male, single patients with a personality disorder diagnosis were more likely to drop out. Therapist variables are less frequently studied, and the only therapist variable related to lower drop out was greater experience. Therapeutic orientations were not related to more or less dropping out. Very few studies have examined work conditions or organizational variables as predictors of premature terminations. Werbarta and colleagues (2014) conducted a large study in 8 clinics in Sweden with 750 patients treated by 140 therapists. The clinics were three psychiatry outpatient units, three specialized psychotherapy units, one young adult psychotherapy unit, and one primary care setting that provided psychotherapy. Drop out was defined as unilateral termination in which either the patient or therapist discontinued the treatment. Of the patients who started therapy, 66% completed treatment and 34% terminated prematurely (19.7% of patients terminated the therapy, 14.3% were terminated by therapists). On average, clients were in their mid-30s, and most had a psychiatric diagnosis. The most common therapy was psychodynamic (59.1%) followed by integrative (19.0%), and cognitive behavioral (17.1%). The authors looked at patient variables (e.g., symptom severity), therapist variables (e.g., age, gender, etc.), and organizational stability. Ratings of organizational stability of the clinic were based on: the transparency of the clinic structure, the suitability of the organization to provide psychotherapy, the clarity of rules and decision-making policies regarding providing psychotherapy, and the clinic’s financial stability. Client variables such as: older age, greater level of psychopathology, and tendency to act out were moderately predictive of dropping out. Receiving treatment at a less stable clinic made it almost four times more likely for patients to initiate dropping out than to remain in therapy. Organizational instability was more important than patient factors in accounting for premature termination.

Practice Implications

Drop outs were almost four times higher in unstable clinics. Instability in organizations can create anxiety, cynicism, and disengagement in staff, which may have consequences for patient care. Financial and political problems within a clinic or institution, internal conflict related to treatment policy or disruptive administrative routines may affect the therapeutic relationship, which is generally more intimate and more important than in other health care contexts. Organizational instability can result in shortened or interrupted treatment, change in therapists, or therapists who are not fully engaged due to clinic stresses. For patients, these terminations may resemble earlier life losses or neglect that may have precipitated their need for therapy in the first place.

View the Organizational Instability May be Related to Premature Termination from Psychotherapy article abstract.
Author email: andrzej@werbart.se

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