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

PPRNet Blog: October 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 pprnet@toh.on.ca.

Giorgio A. Tasca


blogClient Expectations Affect Their Outcomes

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.

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

In this part of the book, Wampold and Imel discuss the importance of client expectations on psychotherapy outcomes. In particular, they equate client expectations with the placebo effect. In the July 2015 PPRNet blog, I discussed Wampold and Imel's distinction between the Contextual Model of psychotherapy and the Medical Model of psychotherapy. One pathway of the Contextual Model indicates that patients who accept an explanation for their disorder and who agree with therapists about therapy interventions, experience expectations that have a powerful impact on patients' emotions and cognitions. The placebo effect has long been known to improve patients’ response to medical interventions. The placebo effect is defined as the difference between a supposedly inert event or medication and the natural course of the disorder. By contrast, the specific effect of an intervention or medication (e.g., an antidepressant) is defined as the difference between the medication and the placebo (i.e., the effect of a medication over and above the effect of a placebo). In one important meta analysis, the placebo effect accounted for about 68% of the antidepressants' impact on depression scores. In other words, the placebo effect (i.e., the expectation of receiving help) has a powerful impact on depression. Generating an expectation of improvement ("this pill is an antidepressant that will reduce your depression") involves: (1) providing a plausible explanation for the disorder ("depression is biochemical imbalance, and this pill [actually an inert placebo] will help"), and (2) having a relationship with an empathic provider. Client expectations of improvement result in mental health outcomes that approach the effects of standard medical treatment for depression. In psychotherapy, creating expectations about the effectiveness of the intervention, providing an explanation of the disorder based on psychological and biological theories, and agreeing on the tasks and goals of therapy are an integral part of the treatment. In other words, the placebo response is part of what makes psychotherapy work, and good therapists capitalize on its effects.

Practice Implications

Patient expectations about the effectiveness of the therapy, their agreement with the therapist on the tasks and goals of therapy, and the therapist's empathy toward the patient are key aspects that will increase the effectiveness of a therapeutic intervention. The explanation of the disorder and the treatment approach are embedded in psychological theories that typically underpin evidence-based psychotherapies.

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blogClients Change at Different Rates

Owen, J., Adelson, J., Budge, S., Wampold, B., Kopta, M., Minami, T., & Miller, S. (2015). Trajectories of change in psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 71(9), 817–827.

Knowing the rate, or the trajectory, or the shape of client change across sessions of therapy can inform our understanding of how patients change, our policies of how many sessions to provide clients, and our clinical decisions if clients are no longer improving. The most popular models of client change across sessions include the "dose-effect model" and the "good-enough level model". The dose-effect suggests that the more therapy patients receive the more they improve but, at a certain point, more sessions result in diminishing returns. In the August 2013 PPRNet blog, I reviewed a chapter suggesting that 17% to 50% partially improve after about 7 sessions, and 50% patients fully recover after receiving about 21 sessions of therapy. Dose effect models might encourage some agencies to provide only the average number of sessions so that most patients will improve. The good-enough level model, on the other hand suggests that patients stay in therapy for varying lengths of time, and the number of sessions is determined by the point at which they feel better. In this study by Owen and colleagues, the authors take a different approach by looking at the patterns or trajectories of change that represent how and at what rate patients improve over time. In this very large study, they gathered session-by-session outcome data for over 10,000 clients seen at 47 treatment centres by over 500 different therapists. Client presenting problems and therapy orientations varied. Owen and colleagues identified 3 classes of patient change trajectories by using advanced statistical modeling of general distress outcomes across 5 to 25 sessions of therapy (average = 9.4 sessions). The largest class, representing 75% of clients, typified those who rapidly improved to session 5 and whose improvement plateaud to session 11, after which they improved again. This was called the "early and late change" class. The second largest class of patients, representing almost 20% of the sample, showed consistent linear change across the sessions. This was called the “slow and steady change” class. The third class of clients, representing about 5% of the sample, showed an initial decline in functioning up to session 5, followed by a steady improvement up to session 9, and then a plateau in improvement after session 9. This was called the "got worse before they got better" class. This last group of clients had the most severe symptoms at the outset.

Practice Implications

This study indicates that one size does not fit all when it comes to how rapidly and in what manner patients change. "Early and late change" patients improve early on and then show another round of improvement later on in therapy. "Slow and steady" change patients show mild but consistent improvement across sessions of therapy. And those whose symptoms are more severe at the outset may "get worse before they get better". This means that it may not be feasible to set an average fixed number of sessions for all patients, but rather therapists and agencies must rely on indices of reliable or good-enough change to determine optimal therapy length for each client. For example, "early and late change" patients may be working on different issues at different stages of therapy. Whereas clients who "show slow and steady" change may need to be in therapy longer before they realize sufficient improvement. For those patients with more severe symptoms who "get worse before they get better", the therapy initially may be difficult but may ultimately induce change in the long run. In this case, therapists may need to provide enough of the current therapeutic approach before considering a change in the course of therapy.

View the Trajectories of Change in Psychotherapy abstract.

Author email: Jesse.owen@louisville.edu

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blogCommunity Members Prefer a Focus on the Therapeutic Relationship (and on the Scientific Merit of Psychotherapy)

Farrell, N.R. & Deacon, B.J. (2015). The relative importance of relational and scientific characteristics of psychotherapy: Perceptions of community members vs. therapists. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2015.08.004

The American Psychological Association defines evidence-based practice (EBP) in psychotherapy as based on: (a) research evidence, (b) clinical expertise, and (c) client characteristics and preferences. We know for example, that clients who receive their preferred treatments better engage with therapy, drop out at a lower rate, and achieve better symptom outcomes. However, we know very little about clients' preferences for the relative importance of the therapeutic relationship with an empathic therapist versus the scientific merit of the treatment they receive. We do know that therapists generally prefer research on the therapeutic relationship, and that therapists may place greater value on relationship issues versus research support for the treatments they provide. In this study Farrell and Deacon sample 200 members of the community about the relative importance of the relationship with a therapist versus the scientific basis of the treatment. The authors also surveyed a similar number of therapists about what therapists thought clients would prefer (relationship vs research evidence) in psychotherapy. Not surprisingly, community members rated both the therapeutic relationship and research evidence highly when indicating what they preferred should they receive psychotherapy. However, the authors found that members of the community rated the therapeutic relationship much more highly than they rated research evidence (d = 1.24). But the difference shrank (d = .24) when it came to treating panic disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder. Therapists tended to under-estimate the importance of community members’ preferences for scientific evidence for psychotherapy. The under-estimation was greater for therapists who placed less value on research. In other words, therapists who valued research less in their own practice were more likely to underestimate the importance to community members of scientific credibility.

Practice Implications

This is by no means a perfect study. As readers of this blog know, I prefer to write about meta analyses, which are much more reliable than findings from a single study. However, it is quite rare to have a study on a large sample of members of the community, let alone one that asks about their perceptions and preferences about psychotherapy. The findings from this study suggest that members of the community highly value the therapeutic relationship and factors like therapist empathy. However, members of the community also place much faith in the scientific evidence that supports the use of psychotherapy. The preference for both a good therapeutic relationship coupled with research evidence may be very important to most members of the community who may seek therapy. Therapists, particularly those who place less weight on research, should keep in mind that clients value the scientific evidence for psychotherapy.

View the The Relative Importance of Relational and Scientific Characteristics of Psychotherapy abstract.

Author email: bdeacon@uow.edu.au

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