Practice-Based Psychotherapy Research
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PPRNet Blog: September 2013

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

blogClient Attachment and Psychotherapy Process and Outcome

Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change

Starting in March 2013 I will review one chapter a month from the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change in addition to reviewing psychotherapy research articles. Book chapters have more restrictive copy right rules than journal articles, so I will not provide author email addresses for these chapters. If you are interested, the Handbook table of content can be viewed on Amazon: Handbook on Amazon.

Client Attachment and Psychotherapy Process and Outcome.

Bohart, A.C. & Wade, A.G. (2013). The client in psychotherapy. In M. Lambert (Ed.) Bergin and Garfield’s handbook of psychotherapy and behavior change (6th ed.), pp. 219-257. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Some authors argue that client factors account for 30% of variance in outcomes. That represents a greater association to psychotherapy outcome than therapist effects and therapeutic techniques combined. In this part of the Handbook chapter on client factors, Bohart and Wade discuss client attachment. Bowlby found that attachment relationships were important and were different from other relationships. Attachment figures confer a sense of security and safety to infants that allow children to explore their environment and experience the self. Attachment patterns that develop in childhood tend to be stable throughout the lifespan, but attachment style can change with positive (i.e., psychotherapy, romantic relationships) and negative (i.e., traumatic events) experiences. Attachment security is associated with adaptive affect regulation, positive view of self and others, and reflective functioning that is related to mentalizing. Attachment anxiety is associated with maladaptive up-regulation of emotions, positive view of others but negative view of self, and reduced reflective functioning likely due to preoccupation with relationships and emotion dysregulation. Attachment avoidance is associated with maladaptive down-regulation of emotions, negative view of others and positive view of self (or negative view of others and negative view of self in the case of fearful avoidant attachment), and limited reflective functioning due to dismissing of emotions and relationships. There are also disorganized attachment states related to traumatic events. Those with attachment avoidance tend to be distrustful and less likely to seek psychotherapy. A meta-analysis by Levy and colleagues (2011) of 19 studies including 1467 clients found that attachment security was associated with good psychotherapy outcomes and attachment anxiety was negatively associated with good outcomes. No relationship was found for attachment avoidance and outcomes. Diener and Monroe (2011) conducted a separate meta analysis on attachment and therapeutic alliance which included 17 studies with 886 clients. They found that clients with secure attachments had better alliances with their therapist and those with insecure attachments (anxious or avoidant) had weaker alliances.

Practice Implications

The research is clear that client attachment style influences how clients enter therapy, engage with the therapist, and experience outcomes. Attachment style likely affects specific therapy behaviors like self-disclosure and amount of exploration. In his book Attachment and Psychotherapy, David Wallin (2007) translates attachment theory into a framework for adult psychotherapy by tailoring interventions to specific attachment styles. For example, clients with greater attachment anxiety may do better in psychotherapy when the therapist: helps with down regulation of client emotional experiences, behaves in a way that does not evoke client fears of abandonment or loss, and helps clients improve reflective functioning by encouraging a thoughtful appraisal of their behaviors. On the other hand clients with greater attachment avoidance may require a therapist who: slowly introduces the client to greater attention to emotional experiences, does not demand too much from the client in terms of closeness in therapy at the outset, and encourages reflective functioning by helping the client understand the association between defensive avoidance of affect and relationship problems.

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blogHow to Identify and Help Clients Who Might Deteriorate

Lambert, M. J. (2012). Helping clinicians to use and learn from research-based systems: The OQ-analyst. Psychotherapy, 49(2), 109.

One of the more interesting and clinically relevant trends in psychotherapy research and practice in the past 10 years is the emergence of research on continuous progress monitoring. Continuous progress monitoring occurs when a patient is given a standardized self report measure before a session and the results of patient functioning are fed back to the therapist. (This is distinct from a clinician asking a patient for a verbal account of how he or she is doing this week). The standardized self report assessment is often done repeatedly, sometimes before every session or every fixed number of sessions. Measures, such as the Outcome Questionnaire (OQ) for adults or youths, was specifically designed for this purpose. The OQ assesses symptoms, interpersonal functioning, and life functioning, and clients are identified as improving (i.e., on course), or at risk of deteriorating. Recently, a small meta analysis of 3 to 4 studies representing 454 to 558 clients on the effects of progress monitoring found a moderate relationship between monitoring plus feedback and client outcomes. The method is particularly effective in changing the course of outcomes for patients who are deteriorating. Large research reviews of evidence based treatments in randomized controlled trials show that about 40% to 60% of patients improve or recover from psychotherapy, 30% to 50% may not benefit, and 3% to 14% deteriorate (see my March 2013 blog). These proportions are likely less positive in everyday practice in which clients are not highly screened to meet research inclusion criteria. Unfortunately, clinicians’ views of their own client outcomes are unrealistically positive. In one survey, clinicians in routine practice reported that about 85% of their clients improved or recovered. About 90% of therapists rated themselves in the upper quartile and none rated themselves as below average (50th percentile). Also there is serious doubt about the ability of clinicians to identify clients during the course of therapy, who ultimately deteriorate. In the paper by Lambert on the use of the Outcome Questionnaire (OQ), he reviewed several studies on continuous progress monitoring in everyday practice. Each therapist was asked to practice as they routinely do with half their usual caseload. With the other half of their caseload clients completed the OQ and the therapist received feedback before every session about patient progress. The feedback did not make a difference for clients who made steady progress (i.e., on track) from week to week. However, continuous progress monitoring did make a difference for the 20% to 30% who showed some sign of deteriorating at some point in treatment. Notifying therapists that these patients were in trouble reduced the rate of deterioration from 20.1% to 5.5%, and monitoring and feedback increased positive outcomes from 22.3% to 55.5%.

Practice Implications

Lambert reported that clinicians in these “practice as usual” studies were initially skeptical but quite surprised at the outcomes related to continuous progress monitoring. Standardized assessments appear to get around the problem of clinician over-estimation of their patients’ positive outcomes. Clinicians were able to more accurately identify clients at risk of deteriorating likely resulting in the therapist doing something different to forestall the negative consequences. Lambert argues that it is in the best interest of at-risk patients to have their symptoms, interpersonal functioning, and life functioning formally monitored throughout treatment. However, clinicians are likely to resist doing so because they believe that they are already highly successful, and even more so than the typical outcomes produced by clinical trials. Formal monitoring of client outcomes has little downside for clinicians (it is inexpensive and requires little training), and it has many upsides for clients, especially those who are at risk for deteriorating.

View the How to Identify and Help Clients Who Might Deteriorate study abstract.
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blogSome Therapists are Reliably Effective and a Few are Reliably Harmful

Kraus, D. R., Castonguay, L., Boswell, J. F., Nordberg, S. S., & Hayes, J. A. (2011). Therapist effectiveness: Implications for accountability and patient care. Psychotherapy Research, 21, 267-276.

Some patients benefit from psychotherapy, some do not, and a few get worse. Research has indicated that patient motivation, client-therapist match, and client characteristics might be associated with better or worse client outcomes. What about the contribution of the therapist? Do some therapists consistently have patients with better outcomes or with worse outcomes? Are consistently effective therapists effective for most patient problem areas or only some? Answers to these questions have important public health, funding, continuing education, and training implications. In a large study conducted in the U.S., Kraus and colleagues assessed 12 patient domains (sexual functioning, work functioning, violence, social functioning, anxiety, substance abuse, psychosis, quality of life, sleep, suicidality, depression, and mania) with a standardized reliable measure (the Treatment Outcome Package). The measure was used in a variety of public and private clinics and practices. Almost 700 therapists were sampled (including social workers 43%, mental health counsellors 35%, psychologists 10%, others 12%), with an average of 11 years experience. Ten cases were selected from each therapist caseload, so almost 7000 patients were included that received at least 16 sessions of therapy (16 sessions is an adequate dose for 50% of patients to improve – see my August, 2013 blog). The patients were, for the most part, representative of a typical caseload with regard to age, sex, and problem area as compared to previous national (U.S.) research. The authors used a reliable change index to classify patients as reliably improved, unchanged, or reliably worsened. The reliable change index is a way of assessing if change from session 1 to 16 on average exceeded the scale's measurement error so that the change was considered reliable (i.e., not due to error). Reliable change for each therapist's 10 patients was calculated so that a therapist could be classified as “effective” (i.e., on average their patients reliably improved), “ineffective” (i.e., on average their patients did not change), or “harmful” (i.e., on average their patients reliably worsened). The frequency of effective therapists ranged from a low of 29% in treating symptoms of sexual dysfunction to a high of 67% in treating symptoms of depression. Harmful therapists ranged from a low of 3% in treating depressive symptoms to a high of 16% in treating symptoms of substance abuse and violence. When looking at competency areas (i.e., areas of reliable effectiveness), the median number of areas of therapist competence was 5 out of 12 problem areas. Only 1 therapist of the approximately 700 therapists was competent in 11 of 12 domains, and none were competent in all 12 domains. Being effective in one domain was not correlated with effectiveness in another domain. So, one cannot infer that if a therapist was effective in treating depression he or she would also be effective in treating social dysfunction, for example.

Practice Implications

There was tremendous variability in therapist skill and areas of competence in this very large sample of therapists. Between 3% and 16% of therapists were classified as reliably harmful to their patients, and between 29% and 67% were reliably effective depending on the problem area they were treating. Therapists who were effective in one domain could be harmful in another. Most therapists had some areas in which they were consistently effective, usually around 5. However, as indicated by previous research, without routine measurement, therapists may not be aware of clients for whom they are consistently helpful or harmful. Routine monitoring of outcomes could guide the matching of client problems to therapists, and could direct therapists to areas for continuing education, training, or personal therapy.

View the Some Therapists are Reliably Effective and a Few are Reliably Harmful article abstract.
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