Phoning it in is more effective than the therapist's couch when it comes to keeping patients in psychotherapy. New Northwestern Medicine research shows patients who had therapy sessions provided over the phone were more likely to complete 18 weeks of treatment than those who had face-to-face sessions.
The study, published in the June 6 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is the first large trial to compare the benefits of face-to-face and telephone therapy. Phone therapy is a rapidly growing trend among therapists. About 85 percent of psychologists now deliver some of their services over the phone because competing demands, transportation time and other problems make it difficult for many patients to get to their offices.
"Now therapists can make house calls," said David Mohr, the lead author and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
"Our study found psychotherapy conveniently provided by telephone to patients wherever they are is effective and reduces dropout. This suggests these services now should be covered by insurance."
While telephone therapy was as effective as face-to-face sessions in reducing depression during treatment, the improvement ebbed slightly six months after treatment ended compared to face-to-face therapy.
The randomized control trial included 325 primary care patients with major depressive disorder. The results showed 20.9 percent of patients who had cognitive behavioral therapy over the phone dropped out compared to 32.7 percent for face-to-face therapy. Patients in both therapies showed equally good improvement in their depression when treatment ended. Six months after treatment ended, all patients remained much improved. However, patients who had the telephone therapy scored three points higher on a depression scale than those who had face-to-face sessions.
"The three point difference is of questionable clinical significance but it raises the question whether some individuals are at risk of worsening after treatment with telephone therapy compared to face-to-face," Mohr said.
It may be that the slight worsening seen in the telephone therapy after the end of treatment was because patients who had more mental health difficulties and who would have dropped out of face-to-face sessions were retained in telephone therapy, Mohr noted. Thus, this may not be a real finding.
"But we can't rule out the possibility that it may be true and there is something about face-to-face treatment that creates better results for some people," Mohr said. "The physical presence of the therapist may be therapeutic in a way that helps some patients maintain their improvement in mood. There may be a unique quality about the human contact that increases resilience and maintains the skills learned to manage depression after treatment has ended."
Mohr said he hopes the study results will encourage insurance providers including Medicare to reimburse telephone therapy sessions, which many companies currently don't cover.
"There is good reason to reimburse these sessions," Mohr said. "Many people can't get to a therapist's office, but they want to talk to someone. Telephone therapy is highly effective and offers a solution to people with depression who otherwise would be left out." This is particularly true for disabled people or those who live where care is unavailable, such as in rural areas, he noted.
Research shows people prefer talk therapy to antidepressant medication, but many quickly drop out of treatment or don't follow up on a referral from their primary care physicians, likely the result of obstacles that prevent them from getting to the therapist's office.
More information: JAMA. 2012;307:2278-2285.