Therapy for depression can work over the phone: study

June 6 Tue Jun 5, 2012 9:32pm EDT

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June 6 (Reuters) - Patients with depression are more likely to stick with talk therapy when it's given over the phone, compared to traditional face-to-face settings, according to a U.S. study.

But while people may not drop out of therapy as much, such treatment in a traditional setting may still be slightly more helpful, according to findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

David Mohr, the lead author of the study and a professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said that many people want therapy as part of their depression treatment but may have trouble actually getting it.

"One of the things we've found over the years is that it's very difficult for people with depression to access psychotherapy," he said.

In addition to the expense if health insurance doesn't cover it, therapy requires a time commitment - sometimes an hour or more per week for months - that is a challenge for people to meet.

To see whether having therapy sessions by phone made it easier for people to stick with their treatment plan, Mohr and his colleagues asked 325 people with depression to undergo 18 weeks of treatment.

Half the patients received therapy over the phone, and the other half in person.

More people dropped out of the face-to-face therapy, 53 people, than those in the telephone-based group, which lost 34.

By the end of the study, patients in both groups felt some relief from their depression. But six months after the study ended, the patients who met their therapists in-person felt less depressed than those who had their sessions over the phone.

"This is very encouraging and suggests that the telephone can be an effective medium to communicate with clients during (cognitive behavior therapy)," said Stefan Hofmann, a psychology professor at Boston University, who was not part of the study.

"Apparently there is an advantage of doing therapy face-to-face, but the reason is not clear," he added.

Mohr's team found that the in-person group scored about three points lower on a 52-point scale of depression.

He said he suspected that the difference between the groups wasn't because in-person therapy works better, but because the more difficult-to-treat patients were more likely to drop out of the in-person group. The telephone-based groups, by contrast, included patients with depression that was harder to treat and who stayed with the therapy.

Hofmann said that perhaps patients could benefit from a combination, starting with telephone-based sessions and following up with face-to-face sessions.

"This strategy might lead to lower attrition (than) face-to-face But greater efficacy than (telephone-based cognitive behavioral therapy) over the long-term," he said. SOURCE: bit.ly/JjFzqx (Reporting from New York by Kerry Grens at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies and Bob Tourtellotte)

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