Phone therapy works

By Amy Mayer • Published: September 27th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

The doctor with a black bag knocking on the front door may remain an image of the past. But soon more psychotherapists could be making house calls — appointment sessions by phone, that is. Telephone talk therapy has been around for some time, but there was little research to show how well it worked. Now, a large study among patients with depression shows they actually remain in therapy more reliably when they receive the counseling over the phone.

A team at Northwestern University conducted a comparison of attrition and success rates for patients enrolled in 18 weeks of therapy to treat depression. The results showed that significantly more patients completed the full course of treatment when they received it over the phone versus in person. The success rates for patients who received all 18 weeks of treatment were similar, regardless of how they received the therapy.

One caveat exists, though. Six months after completing the initial treatment, both groups of patients remained improved from their initial conditions. But those who received therapy in person fared slightly better on a depression scale than the telephone-treated patients. The study’s authors say one explanation could be that sicker patients stuck with the phone therapy but dropped out of in-person therapy. That would mean the in-person group was healthier overall and, therefore, would be expected to do better. Or there may be some added benefit from actual human contact. Though they can’t tease out that variable yet, supporters of phone therapy say the results demonstrate that patients can do well with this often more convenient delivery method. And that, they say, means phone sessions should be covered by any insurance policy that covers therapy. For someone suffering with depression, getting help without leaving the house could be the crucial first step.