Practice-Based Psychotherapy Research
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PPRNet Blog: June 2015

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

blogRelative Efficacy of Psychotherapies for Depression

The Great Psychotherapy Debate

Starting in April, 2015 I will review parts of The Great Psychotherapy Debate that focus on efficacy of treatments, therapist effects, common factors, and more. This is the second edition of this landmark and sometimes controversial book that provides a historical and current survey of 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.

Relative Efficacy of Psychotherapies for Depression

Wampold, B.E. & Imel, Z.E. (2015). The Great Psychotherapy Debate: The evidence for what makes psychotherapy work (2nd edition). New York: Routledge.

The narrative about the relative efficacy of psychotherapies for depression has shifted over the past several decades. In the early days (1970s – 1980s) there appeared to be accumulating evidence that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) was more efficacious than “other psychotherapies”. However, one look at the Society for Clinical Psychology list of empirically supported treatments for depression today indicates that a variety of interventions are efficacious. In this part of their book, Wampold & Imel examine this change. Early in their book, they defined psychotherapy as: (1) based psychological principles, (2) involving a trained therapist and a client who is seeking help for a mental disorder, (3) intended to be helpful for the client's complaints, and (4) adapted to the client’s problem. Wampold and Imel argue that many of the treatments compared to CBT in the early days did not meet this definition of psychotherapy. That is, many of the early comparison treatments were not bona-fide therapies; so the comparisons were not expected to be therapeutic. Common comparisons to CBT were "usual care", "supportive therapy", and "self directed care" that for the most part did not meet the definition of psychotherapy. Further, the providers of usual care or supportive therapy had no allegiance to the treatment or expectation that the intervention was useful, which eroded the credibility of these interventions for the client. When bona-fide psychotherapies are compared to each other, the effect sizes tend to be small or negligible. For example, Braun and colleagues (2013) conducted a large meta analysis of 53 studies with nearly 4,000 patients. When they looked specifically at bona fide therapies and pairs of treatments with at least 5 comparison studies, there were no differences between the treatments. Similar findings are reported in large a network meta analysis by Barth and colleagues (2013) (198 studies with 15,118 patients) that was summarized in the July 2014 PPRNet Blog.

Practice Implications

Psychotherapies that are based on psychological principles, delivered by trained therapists for clients who seek help and that are intended to be helpful for the client’s complaint are likely to be equally effective for depressive disorders. A variety of psychotherapies including, CBT, emotionally-focused therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, and short-term psychodynamic therapy have demonstrated empirical support for their efficacy in treating depression. Client expectations of receiving benefit and therapist allegiance to treatment enhance the effectiveness of treatments.

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blogPsychotherapy Reduces Hospital Costs and Physician Visits

Abbass, A., Kisely, S., Rasic, D., Town, J.M., & Johansson, R. (2015). Long-term healthcare cost reduction with Intensive Short-term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy in tertiary psychiatric care. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 64:114-120. 2015

Several years ago Lazar (2010) published a book detailing the cost-effectiveness of psychotherapy for a variety of disorders. That is, her systematic review found that on most economic indicators (lost income, decreased disability, decreased health utilization) psychotherapy resulted in an immediate cost reduction over and above the cost of the treatment. In this study from Halifax, Canada, Abbass and colleagues looked at the effects of psychotherapy, specifically of Intensive Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP), on the long-term reduction in hospital costs and physician visits. Abbass and colleagues argue that adverse childhood events are an important determinant of adult mental health problems and of increased costs to the health system likely because of the consequence of problems with emotion regulation. Psychotherapies like ISTDP specifically address issues that are a consequence of childhood maltreatment and so might reduce some of the consequent health care costs. Abbass and colleagues provided ISTDP to 890 patients in the Halifax health care system who were referred to the psychotherapy service from emergency departments, physicians, and mental health providers. These patients’ outcomes were compared to 192 patients not seen by the clinic for various reasons. Most common diagnoses of the total sample were: somatoform disorder, anxiety disorder, personality disorder, and depressive disorder. Participant completed measures of psychological distress, and the research team were able to access provincial health usage data tracked over 3 years. Fifty eight therapists of various skill levels (psychiatrists, psychologists, family physicians, trainees) provided ISTDP. The average patient attended 7.3 sessions which cost $708 (estimated by salaries in 2006). Patients receiving psychotherapy had physician and hospital costs that decreased from $3,224 to $4759 in Canadian dollars per year over three years (again in 2006 dollars). Patients in the control condition not receiving ISTDP showed health care costs that increased from $368 to $2,663 per year. These trajectories of health care costs were significantly different. Yearly physician and health care costs for patients prior to being treated with ISTDP were greater than those of the general Canadian population, but 3 years post ISTDP their health care costs were less than the general Canadian population. In addition, compared to control patients those treated with psychotherapy showed a significant reduction in psychological distress.

Practice Implications

This study by Abbass and colleagues demonstrates that short term psychotherapy provided to a broad range of patients and targeting health and illness behaviors related to problems with emotion regulation can reduce health care costs. These reductions in hospital and physician visits occurred in the short term and were sustained over several years. Some patients may require longer treatment, but the evidence suggests that short term interventions should be tried first.

View the Psychotherapy Reduces Hospital Costs and Physician Visits article.
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blogEffects of CBT are Declining

Johnsen, T. J., & Friborg, O. (2015, May 11). The effects of cognitive behavioral therapy as an anti-depressive treatment is falling: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication.

Depression is a highly debilitating disorder and ranked third in terms of disease burden in the world. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for depression that was introduced over 40 years ago. In part, CBT sees depression as caused by maladaptive thoughts that maintain emotional distress and dysfunctional behavior. Reducing depression is achieved by eliminating the impact of or chancing maladaptive thoughts. CBT is the most researched psychological treatment for depression, and the research goes back several decades. A number of technical variations and new additions have been made over the years to CBT to improve patient outcomes. The volume of research and its history provides a unique opportunity to assess time trends in the effects of CBT. In this meta analysis, Johnsen and Friborg asked: “have the effects of CBT changed over time”? They also looked at whether client factors (e.g., demographics, symptom severity), therapist factors (e.g., age, experience, training), common factors (e.g., therapeutic alliance, client expectancies), and technique factors (e.g., fidelity to a treatment manual) can explain these trends. Johnsen and Friborg reported on 70 studies of 2,426 patients conducted from 1977 to 2014. Males accounted for 30.9% of patients, 43% had comorbid psychiatric conditions, and the average patient was at least moderately depressed. The average effect of CBT in reducing depression was large (g = 1.46 after accounting for publication bias). Women had better outcomes, studies with poorer methodological quality showed larger effects, and patients of more experienced therapists had better outcomes. There were too few studies measuring therapeutic alliance to assess the effect of common factors on outcomes. Most interesting was a significant relationship between effect sizes and year of publication. That is, the effects of CBT declined significantly over the years, though the average effect remained large. Surprisingly, there was a steeper decline for studies that used a treatment manual compared to those that did not. No other variables were reliably associated with this decline.

Practice Implications

Women and patients of more experienced therapists appear to benefit most from CBT. Although the effects of CBT declined over time, the treatment remained highly effective. Johnsen and Friborg’s study could not easily explain this decline. The authors suggested that the placebo effect (expectation on the part of patients, researchers, and therapists) is typically stronger for new treatments. However, as time passes the strong initial expectations tend to wane thus reducing the overall effect of the intervention. They also suggested that CBT treatment outcomes may be improved not by technical variations and new additions, but by better ways of integrating common, therapist, and client factors.

View the Effects of CBT are Declining article abstract.
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