Practice-Based Psychotherapy Research
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PPRNet Blog: January 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

blogDoes Change in Cognitions Explain the Effectiveness of Cognitive Therapy for Depression?

The Great Psychotherapy Debate: Starting in April, 2015 I will review parts of The Great Psychotherapy Debate (Wampold & Imel, 2015) in the PPRNet Blog. This is the second edition of a landmark and sometimes controversial book that surveys the evidence for what makes psychotherapy work. Since this is a book I will not provide the author email. However, you can view parts of the book in Google Books.

Change in dysfunctional attitudes or cognitions is one of the specific mechanisms by which cognitive therapy (CT) is thought to be effective in the treatment of depression. In this part of their book, Wampold and Imel discuss the evidence that addresses the specific change mechanisms for CT. The reason they focus on CT is that CT is by far the most researched psychotherapy approach, and there is a substantial number of CT studies that have addressed this issue of change mechanisms. In an early meta analysis, Oei and Free (1995) found a significant relationship between change in cognitions and CT. However, in the same meta analysis, the authors found that CT and non-cognitive therapies did not differ in terms of their effects on cognitions. That is, most treatments, whether CT or not, appeared to change cognitions. In another study, three different interventions (behavioral activation, CT, and CT plus behavioral activation) all resulted in change in cognitions and improved depression. In other words, cognitive interventions do not seem to be needed to alter cognitions and reduce depression. Wampold and Imel argue that nonspecific processes in CT (and other psychotherapies for that matter) are largely responsible for the effectiveness of psychotherapy. For example, there is evidence to suggest that a number of patients show substantial symptom improvement early in treatment before specific cognitive techniques are introduced. Some have argued that this early favourable response is largely due to the effects of client expectations, reassurance, and remoralization rather than the specific procedures of the therapy. Moreover, patients who experience this remoralization early-on may be better at successfully applying techniques taught in CT. A large review of this literature concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the notion that challenging thoughts was responsible for the positive effects of CT.

Practice Implications

This line of research appears to indicate that the specific practice of challenging thoughts or dysfunctional attitudes is not primarily responsible for patient change in CT. It may be that for any psychological treatment that has a cogent rationale for the disorder and is administered by an acknowledged expert, client progress may be determined largely by contextual factors. These factors may include a therapeutic alliance, client expectations of benefit, and client remoralization, which may in turn allow clients to benefit from the specific interventions of psychological treatments.

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blogAttrition from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Fernandez, E., Salem, D., Swift, J. K., & Ramtahal, N. (2015, August 24). Meta-analysis of dropout from cognitive behavioral therapy: Magnitude, timing, and moderators. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication.

“Dropping out” refers to clients who discontinue therapy prematurely and against professional advice. In contrast, “refusing” refers to clients who do not start a therapy that is made available to them. Together, both dropping out and refusing are referred to as “attrition” from therapy. Attrition is a problem for clinicians because of loss of revenue and time, and a problem for clients because their mental health needs remain unmet. In a previous meta analysis that included 669 studies, Swift and Greenberg (2012) reported that the average drop out rate across all therapies was 19.7%. In this meta analysis, Fernandez and colleagues looked specifically at drop outs and refusers in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The authors reviewed 115 studies that reported drop outs, 36 of which also reported on the number of participants who refused treatment before starting. The average percent of patients who refused CBT prior to starting treatment was 15.9%, and the average percent of patients who dropped out after starting CBT was 26.2%. So the total average attrition rate was 42.1%. Compared to any other disorder, patients with depression were significantly more likely to refuse CBT (21.6%) or to drop out (36.4%). It is possible that depressed patients have a harder time summoning the energy to participate in therapy, and experience lower hope, greater social withdrawal, and lower motivation once they initiate CBT. For those receiving e-therapies (e.g., internet, phone, and CD-based treatments), pre-treatment refusal rates were 10% to 15% higher than individual or group CBT, and drop outs from e-therapies were 10% higher compared to individual or group CBT. Those offered e-therapy might be ambivalent about its utility, the therapeutic alliance might be limited, and they might have a lower sense of engagement in the therapeutic process. Finally, a greater number of planned therapy sessions was related to lower attrition rates. Perhaps the promise of more sessions raised clients’ hopes of achieving better outcomes.

Practice Implications

These findings suggest that engaging and encouraging clients to participate in the therapy may have to start even before therapy begins. This may involve enhancing readiness by means of motivational interviewing, for example. Clients who are depressed are particularly likely to refuse treatment or drop out, and so clinicians must pay particular attention to the level of motivation and engagement of depressed clients. Although e-therapies are promising in that they may allow a therapist or agency to reach more people including those who live in remote areas, the attrition rate of e-therapies may be unacceptably high. Attrition may lead to demoralization and lowered expectations for treatment among these patients, which may negatively impact future treatment. Perhaps e-therapies should not be considered as a first-line treatment for those who can easily access individual or group therapy. Alternatively, the high attrition rates of e-therapies may be reduced by supplementing the intervention with some in-person therapy sessions to enhance engagement and a therapeutic alliance.

View a copy of the Attrition from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy abstract.

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blogDeliberate Practice in Highly Effective Therapists

Chow, D. L., Miller, S. D., Seidel, J. A., Kane, R. T., Thornton, J. A., & Andrews, W. P. (2015). The role of deliberate practice in the development of highly effective psychotherapists. Psychotherapy, 52(3), 337.

In 2014, Tracey and colleagues caused a stir when they claimed that there was no evidence of expertise in psychotherapy (see my July, 2014 blog). They defined expertise as increased quality of performance that is gained with additional experience – and they concluded that psychotherapy research has not provided evidence that therapist performance improves with experience. The issue is important because differences between therapists account for over 5% of patient outcomes. This seems small, but it is larger than variance in outcomes accounted for by the use of empirically supported treatments (0% - 4%), and almost as large as the variance accounted for by client-rated alliance (5% - 15%). Across a wide variety of professions (e.g., music, medicine, chess, sports), professionals’ engagement in deliberate practice results in improvement and superior performance. However, there is little evidence of this in psychotherapy. In this article by Chow and colleagues, the authors look specifically at “deliberate practice” defined as individualized training activities to improve one’s performance through repetition and refinement. To be effective, deliberate practice has to be focused on achieving specific targets and guided by conscious monitoring of outcomes over a long period of time. The authors collected a sample of 69 therapists who worked across a number of organizations and practice areas, and these therapists provided data related to 4,850 patients. Seventeen of the 69 therapists who treated 1,632 clients also provided data on professional development activities. Therapists were multidisciplinary (i.e., counsellors, psychologists, marital therapists, social workers, psychotherapists) with an average of over 8 years of experience, who worked mainly in private practice or within the national health service in the U.K., and who primarily treated adult patients with depression or anxiety disorders. Patient outcomes were measured repeatedly with a valid standardized scale, and deliberate practice was self reported by therapists using a measure that asked about the frequency and time therapists engaged in 25 activities outside of work aimed at improving therapeutic skills. On average, clients improved by the end of treatment and the effect was large (d = 1.22). As expected therapists differed in their patient outcomes (i.e., some therapists were reliably more effective than others). Therapist demographic variables, theoretical orientation, years of experience, and practice setting were not related to patient outcomes. However, the amount of time in deliberate practice activities was associated with a reduction in client distress. Compared to the less effective therapists (2.62 hrs/wk in deliberate practice), the best performing therapists (7.39 hrs/wk in deliberate practice) spent about 2.81 times more time on deliberate practice. Therapists rated the following deliberate practice activities as the most relevant to their patients’ outcomes: reviewing challenging cases, attending training workshops, reflecting on past sessions, and reflecting on what to do in future sessions.

Practice Implications

Although this is a single study with a relatively small sample of therapists, it is one of those rare studies to assess the effects of therapist deliberate practice on patient outcomes. As is the case with other professions, reviewing one’s performance can play an important role in identifying errors, altering course, and remediating problems. As Tracey and colleagues indicated, therapists need good quality information in order to learn from their errors and make adjustments so that clients can improve. Quality information might be available from progress monitoring (i.e., continuous feedback to therapists about client outcomes), which has been shown to improve client outcomes especially for at-risk cases. Chow and colleagues go further to suggest targeted learning by using standardized clients within training and supervision contexts. Deliberate practice is not only for newer or less experienced therapists, since experienced therapists also vary in their ability to engage and help clients. Highly effective therapists spend more time engaging in activities outside of their practice specifically aimed at improving their performance.

View a copy of the Deliberate Practice in Highly Effective Therapists abstract.

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