Practice-Based Psychotherapy Research
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PPRNet Blog: August 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

Giorgio A. Tasca

blogClients' 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.

Practice Implications

This qualitative meta analysis highlights the important role played by the client’s experience and therapy context in promoting good outcomes. The results suggest that therapists should: (1) encourage clients’ curiosity about their cognitive, emotional and relational patterns; (2) engage in an accepting and caring relationship in order to help clients decrease their defensiveness about vulnerable topics; (3) maintain the therapeutic structure in order to increase clients’ sense of confidence in the process; (4) explicitly acknowledge power differentials and repair alliance ruptures; (5) encourage clients to take an active role in therapy as a means of self-healing; and (6) regularly check with clients about the fit of interventions, in-session needs, and treatment goals.

View a copy of the Clients' Experiences of Psychotherapy abstract.

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blogTherapists 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.

Practice Implications

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.

View a copy of the Therapists Affect Patient Dropout and Deterioration abstract.

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blogPsychotherapy That is Culturally Congruent for Chinese Clients

Xu, H. & Tracey, T.J.G. (2016). Cultural congruence with psychotherapy efficacy: A network meta-analytic examination in China. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63, 359-365.

Cultural congruence refers to providing psychotherapy that is consistent with the client’s cultural context in its description of the etiology of symptoms and in its therapeutic procedures. In general, congruence of treatments with clients’ expectation, preferences, and beliefs is related to greater psychotherapy efficacy. And specifically identifying culturally appropriate or adapted treatments is important because this is often related to better therapy outcomes for ethnic and racial minorities. Psychotherapy as a professional practice developed recently in China. Cognitive-behavioral, existential-humanistic, and psychodynamic therapies have taken their place along side indigenous therapies including Naikan therapy, Taoism cognitive therapy, and Morita therapy. Historically in China mental health problems were seen as a disturbance in ying-yang or a sin committed in a previous life. Healing practices included engaging in altruism or religious practices to achieve redemption. Xu and Tracey argue that Chinese culture strongly endorses an experiential and subjective orientation and is less aligned with analytic and objective orientations. Using this understanding, the authors expected that experiential-humanistic and indigenous therapies would be more congruent and therefore more effective than cognitive-behavioral education or psychodynamic therapy in alleviating mental health issues. In this meta analysis, Xu and Tracey reported on 235 studies conducted in China that compared the various treatments to a control condition or to each other. There were too few studies of psychodynamic therapy, so it was not included in the analyses. All treatments were effective compared to a control condition with large effect sizes (g = .85 to 1.18). However, whereas experiential-humanistic and indigenous therapies were equally effective, each was significantly more effective (g = .34) than cognitive-behavioral psychoeducation.

Practice Implications

The three modalities, experiential-humanistic, indigenous, and cognitive-behavioral psychoeducation were effective. However the two therapies that were more experiential and subjective in nature were more effective to reduce Chinese clients’ symptoms. When working with Chinese clients, therapists may achieve better outcomes if they work on more experiential components (e.g., feelings and therapeutic relationship) and focus on subjective experiences (e.g., introspection and reflection). The results of the meta analysis suggest that when working with Chinese clients interpersonal processes and emotions should be the clinical focus and take priority over dysfunctional cognitions and psychoeducation.

View a copy of the Psychotherapy That is Culturally Congruent for Chinese Clients abstract.

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