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

PPRNet Blog: April 2016


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


blogHow 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).

Practice Implications

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.

View a copy of the How Important are the Common Factors in Psychotherapy? article.

Author email: wampold@education.wisc.edu

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blogPatient Experience of Negative Effects of Psychotherapy

Crawford, M.J., Thana, L., Farquharson, L., Palmer, L., Hancock, E.... Parry, G.D. (2016). Patient experience of negative effects of psychological treatment: results of a national survey. British Journal of Psychiatry, 208, 260-265.

There is lots of evidence that psychotherapy is effective for a wide variety of disorders. However, a number of studies report that between 5% and 10% of patients report higher levels of symptoms following treatment compared to when they started. Although the side effects and negative outcomes in pharmacological treatment studies are routinely reported, negative outcomes in psychological treatment studies are rarely reported and investigated. In this very large survey, Crawford and colleagues analysed data from an audit of state funded psychological therapies for depression and anxiety in England and Wales. Adult patients from 220 centers were invited to complete an anonymous service-user questionnaire that asked about their experiences of the processes and outcomes of psychotherapy. Some of the questions asked if clients experienced a “lasting bad effect” from the treatment. Nearly 15,000 individuals responded to the survey. More than half (51%) were treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, and most clients received only one treatment, which was predominantly individual therapy. Most (74.35%) received fewer than 10 sessions. Of the respondents, 763 (5.23%) reported that therapy had a “lasting bad effect”, and an additional 7.70% were “unsure” whether they experienced a lasting bad effect. People over 65 years old were less likely to have a lasting negative effect, and those from minority ethnic groups and non-heterosexuals were more likely to report lasting bad effects. In addition, those who did not know what type of therapy they received were more likely to have lasting bad effects.

Practice Implications

A substantial minority of patients reported lasting negative effects from their psychological treatment. With approximately a million Canadians receiving outpatient psychological treatment of one form or another each year, these findings imply that thousands of patients could have experienced a lasting negative effect. The findings suggest that psychotherapists need to be highly sensitive to cultural and ethnic minority issues and acquire cultural competence. The same is true when treating non-heterosexuals. Clinicians should also make sure to provide sufficient information to patients about the type of treatment they are receiving as part of the informed consent process. Attending to these issues may reduce the likelihood of therapeutic alliance ruptures that may be related to lasting negative effects.

View a copy of the Patient Experience of Negative Effects of Psychotherapy abstract.

Author email: m.crawford@imperial.ac.uk

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blogNonimproved Patients View Their Psychotherapy

Werbart, A., Von Below, C., Brun, J., & Gunnarsdottir, H. (2015). “Spinning one’s wheels”: Nonimproved patients view their psychotherapy. Psychotherapy Research, 25, 546-564.

The rate of patients who experience no change after receiving psychotherapy is about 35% to 40% in clinical trials. Further, about 5% to 10% get worse after treatment. So, in spite of the fact that psychotherapy is effective in general, a sizeable minority of patients do not benefit. There is also evidence that patients’ perception of therapy differs greatly from their therapists’. Therapists are often inaccurate in identifying or predicting patient outcomes, and patients’ judgements tend to better correspond with treatment outcomes. In this study, Werbart and colleagues evaluated outcomes of 134 patients who had elevated symptoms. The average age of patients was 22.4 years (range 18 – 26), so many were young adults. Almost all received a diagnosis ranging from depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, or personality disorders. The predominant treatment was psychoanalytic. Of the 134 patients, many experienced large improvements by the end of treatment. However, 20 patients remained clinically distressed and did not improve or deteriorated after receiving psychotherapy. The authors interviewed these 20 patients at termination and at three-year follow-up using a semi-structured interview. The interview asked patients for their experiences of therapy. The researchers transcribed the interviews and coded the transcripts using a known method of qualitative analysis called “grounded theory”. Three main themes related to poor outcomes were identified by these patients. (1) The therapy or therapist – in which: therapists were perceived by patients as passive or reticent, patients felt distant from the therapist, and patients did not understand the therapy method. (2) Outcomes of therapy – in which: the patient expected more from therapy, and symptoms and emotional problems remained in the “impaired” range at the end of treatment. (3) The impact of life circumstances – referring to negative impacts of events outside of the therapy.

Practice Implications

This is a small but unique study that interviewed patients who did not benefit from psychotherapy about their experiences of the treatment and therapist. Nonimproved patients described their therapist generally as too passive, distant, and uninvolved in the work of therapy. These patients described difficulty understanding the therapeutic method and the nature of the therapeutic relationship. The findings highlight the importance of the therapeutic alliance. To have a good alliance, patients and therapists have to agree on the tasks of therapy, agree on the goals that the therapy should achieve for the patient, and there should be a mutual liking or bond between patient and therapist. Those patients whose therapists pay attention to and foster a good alliance are more likely to experience good outcomes.

View a copy of the Nonimproved Patients View Their Psychotherapy abstract.

Author email: jesse.owen@du.edu

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