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The therapist will ring you now

September 22, 2008 |  4:00 pm

Phone1One of the big barriers to getting psychotherapy for those with depression is that it's hard for people who are intensely sad to shower, get dressed and show up for their appointment with the therapist. Increasingly, therapists have been experimenting with telephone psychotherapy. Phone therapy is also used a lot in employee assistance programs. But does it really work or is there some magic to sitting on the therapist's couch and talking face-to-face?

A new study published today shows that people with depression who receive telephone psychotherapy continue with the therapy longer than do patients who have office visits. Researchers at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine looked at a range of studies and found that the national average attrition rate for telephone counseling was 7.6% compared with nearly 50% among patients in face-to-face therapy. The study, published in this month's issue of Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, also showed that patients using phone therapy had a decrease in depressive symptoms that was similar to people engaging in face-to-face therapy.

Among patients who say they want therapy, only 20% actually show up for a referral and half end up dropping out of treatment, says the study's author David Mohr. Those dismal statistics suggest that doctors need to reach out to depressed people -- maybe even by calling them at the appointed time.

"One of the symptoms of depression is people lose motivation," says Mohr, a professor of preventive medicine. "It's hard for them to do the things they are supposed to do. Showing up for appointments is one of those things."

Using the telephone also solves any problems patients may have with transportation to the therapist's office and the time needed to participate in therapy. The Northwestern research group is now conducting a study that assigns people to either phone therapy or traditional therapy to directly compare the outcomes of each.

- Shari Roan

Artwork: This artwork originally appeared with an article on the effect of the prevalence of cellphones around the world. Edvard Munch's "The Scream" using a cell. Credit: Gary Viskupic/Tribune Media Services.