Friday, September 16, 2016

Mental Health Care Triage

What is Triage?

"Triage" is a term used in medicine, referring to the process of deciding the order in which patients should be seen and attended to, if many are waiting.

If you are waiting for something, such as for a table at a restaurant,  the first person to arrive is served first.  An even higher priority is also given to people who have made "reservations," or who have arranged their appointments in advance.

In an emergency room, a different system is needed.  Even if you have been in the waiting room for several hours with a broken ankle, a person just arriving with a heart attack must be seen right away, before you!   It generally would not work to make "reservations" at the emergency room, except maybe if you are on your way in an ambulance.

Triage involves not only deciding what order in which patients should be seen, it also involves deciding what type of service should be provided to each person.

If everyone with abdominal pain was sent to a surgeon, it would be inefficient...most cases of abdominal pain do not need surgical treatment.  If these non-surgical cases were all seen by the surgeon, then the surgeon would be too busy to deal with the true surgical emergencies!

In mental health care, it can be efficient to have a triage process.  But how to do this?


The most common strategy is to offer some form of "assessment" which then could guide a triage decision.  This usually would involve an interview.  It could involve filling out questionnaires.  Based on the results of the interview and the questionnaire results, a decision could be made about whether some form of counseling might be needed, or perhaps a visit to a physician, a referral to a psychiatrist, or even an urgent trip to the hospital.   In other cases, a bit of simple reassurance, simple lifestyle or self-care advice might be really helpful.

The benefits of an efficient triage process would be that others in the system could then see clients or patients whose particular problems or levels of severity were well-matched to the skills of the particular caregiver.  All caregivers in the system would spend less time dealing with situations that were outside their scope of experience or expertise.

Potential Problems 

What are some of the potential problems of a mental health triage process?

1) The first issue has to do with the reliance on a single interview, and on questionnaire data.  In a great many cases, this is an efficient, helpful process.  But in some cases, an ongoing relationship is needed to understand mental health issues.  People may not be willing to share sensitive issues with someone who will only be seeing them once.  People may not be willing to divulge sensitive information in a questionnaire, which will then be handed in to a stranger.   Some people may have a very clear reason to desire a therapeutic relationship of a particular type, without wanting to explain their reasons in detail to a stranger who would only be seeing them once.

So the triage system, involving interviews and questionnaires, must have the flexibility to accommodate situations of this type.  Basically, it should have strong consideration for patients' or clients' wishes for privacy, discretion, confidentiality, and therapeutic resources, while not being rigidly adherent to questionnaire or interview data.

A simple remedy for this problem can be for individual patients or clients to have the ability to make a direct request for a particular type of care, without having to "jump through the hoop" of a triage assessment visit.  Many people who desire a therapeutic relationship will not benefit from going over their history with a stranger who will not be seeing them in the future.  In fact, the triage step will just add to their stress, and could lead to a feeling of having to negotiate yet another bureaucracy.

2) The second issue has to do with the quality of life of people working in the system.  In my experience, emergency psychiatry is a very stressful area of mental health care.  Practitioners in this area can often become burned out or even cynical over time, if this is the only type of work that they are doing.  The reasons for this are not simply related to the severity of the problems seen in the emergency room:  it is also because emergency workers usually do not follow the patients or clients after their emergency visits.  Therefore, they do not get to see their patients or clients recover!  They may not have the satisfaction or enjoyment of working with someone over a period of time, and seeing their progress.    Furthermore, if they are only doing emergency or triage tasks, their clinical skills for doing other types of ongoing health care will weaken or atrophy.  

I believe that a big part of the joy of being a therapist or a physician, involves getting to know your clients and patients on an ongoing basis, sometimes for long periods of time.  It can be demoralizing and stressful to only be seeing people a single time, or only be seeing people who are severely ill.

There is a simple remedy for this problem:  in any triage system, or emergency care system, it can be valuable for different staff to take turns doing triage tasks.  Each staff person should also have the opportunity, at other times,  to follow some patients or clients for ongoing care.   This would help staff to maintain better morale, and to maintain better clinical skills beyond "assessment."

3) A third issue has to do with the risks of a supposedly "efficient" system becoming more and more like a mechanical or impersonal bureaucracy.   As questionnaire-based systems become more and more prevalent, we may start talking more and more about "PHQ-9" scores, and less and less about a person's story.   Furthermore, score-based assessments in mental health may lead to false conclusions about what is truly helpful.  For example, a person in great distress may enter an emergency room on a Friday night with an extremely high score.  That person might have an unpleasant experience on a stretcher in a noisy hallway on Friday night, then a frightening experience on a busy emergency ward for the next day.  On Sunday afternoon, the symptom questionnaire may be repeated, yielding a greatly reduced score.  The conclusion may be that the emergency room experience was profoundly helpful!   In this case, the symptom score diminished because of the passage of time, and perhaps because of a physical place that was safe in some ways.  Other types of harms may well have been done because of this experience (for example, the person may dread ever having to go to the hospital again), but this harm would not be detected on a cross-sectional symptom scoresheet.   The harm would be apparent, however, if we were to have a conversation with this person rather than just give them a questionnaire.

Symptom questionnaires are very imperfect guides, and should never be the foundation of any type of health care, especially in mental health  (see my previous post about questionnaires:  I do think they have their role, and people could be invited to use them, but there is a risk of both the patient or client, and the caregiver, paying too much attention to questionnaires, and too little attention to other aspects of care or need.

4) A fourth issue has to do with allocation of health care resources.  While triage could improve efficiency, and allow more people to get the help they need, it could also in some cases be an unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle.  The same money and resources spent on a triage system could instead be spent simply hiring more counselors, who could manage their own triage.  In many private counseling regimes, a person seeking a counseling relationship is already "self-triaging" and can inquire on their own with the therapist about the possible types of care available or needed.  

This issue is similar to the Electronic Health Records (EHR) issue:  an innovative device, triage system, or "model" may be useful in some ways, but it must always be in service of a higher value, which is to provide personal, empathic, attentive, ongoing care to those who desire it, and to allow a healthy, balanced, meaningful work environment for therapists.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Electronic Health Records (EHR)

Electronic health records allow for a variety of improvements in medical practice and health care:

Communication between physicians can be improved.

Lab results can be coordinated and exchanged efficiently, with a reduction in the chance of results being overlooked.

Patients or clients of a health care service can become more directly involved in perusing their own health records, and therefore could have a more empowered, active role in their health care.

Some systems can also allow prescriptions, other treatments, and symptoms to be tracked efficiently over time.

Patients could also contribute information (such as providing a history, filling out questionnaires about symptoms, etc.) directly into the system, which could make the clinical time with a health care provider more efficient and more personal, less focused on "data gathering."

Problems with EHR

Yet, there are a variety of problems associated with the use of computerized health record systems.  

Impact on Rapport

I think the worst problem is the potential impact on rapport during a health care visit.  If your physician or therapist is fumbling with a keyboard, and staring at a screen, instead of paying attention to you, this is poor quality of care, and threatens the therapeutic relationship.  This is potentially harmful to clients or patients, and is also potentially harmful to the well-being of the physician or therapist.  

You could compare this to having an "appointment" with a friend...if your friend is busy checking a cell phone or typing on a computer keyboard during dinner, or during a forest walk, the technology will harm your friendship!  When such behaviour becomes more frequent, more of a norm, more trendy, people tend to simply go along with such things, rather than insist that the device or gadget be turned off.  I think it would be better to complain to your friend about it instead, and to insist on having a conversation, or to insist on just walking quietly through the forest together!  

In some of the meetings I have attended over the past few years, I have seen people enthusiastically talking about new apps and gadgets in therapeutic settings (such as collaborating with clients using an ipad), yet part of the irony of these meetings was that the presenters or audience members were themselves so engrossed with their laptops or with their other gadgets that they had very little eye contact or social connection with those around them, and perhaps not a lot of awareness that their gadget-preoccupation was even a bit of an annoyance to their neighbours.  

Corporate Influence: 20 Billion Dollars!

Another problem with electronic records has to do with economic factors.   The EHR market is worth about $15-20 billion dollars globally, and is growing rapidly! *   This is enough money to fund 400 000 therapists, each earning $50 000 per year.

The corporations producing EHR software and machinery profit financially from sales. Clinics or hospitals using EHR will need educational sessions with representatives of the tech companies.  This is a potential conflict of interest issue:  it is similar to having medical education sessions organized and led by pharmaceutical reps.  The educational sessions are marketing opportunities for representatives of the EHR software company to consolidate adherence to a product.  Much of this education is sincerely useful for staff and beneficial for clients or patients, and the educational sessions may come with sincerely positive intentions.   But there are biases favouring a continuing business relationship with the software corporation, separate from considerations of patient or client care.  

Literature Review of EHR Problems

What does the academic literature have to say about this?  We have a pertinent article just published:  Susan Hingle, in Annals of Internal Medicine (Sep 6, 2016, doi 10:7326/M16-1757), reviews the use of electronic health records. Here is a quote from this article: 

Sinsky and colleagues confirm what many practicing physicians have claimed: Electronic health records (EHRs), in their current state, occupy a lot of physicians' time and draw attention away from their direct interactions with patients and from their personal lives. Observers documented that for every hour of direct clinical time with patients, physicians spent 2 additional hours on EHR and desk work, and physicians reported spending up to an additional 1 to 2 hours of after-hours personal time completing documentation and EHR tasks. These observations have important implications for patient care and outcomes...A recent study found that physicians who use EHRs and computerized physician order entry have decreased satisfaction and a higher risk for professional burnout. Physicians who burn out are at a significantly greater risk for depression and suicidal ideation, and there is also concern that they are more likely than satisfied colleagues to provide lower-quality patient care and to leave clinical practice early, although this is difficult to fully measure...Now is the time to go beyond complaining about EHRs and other practice hassles and to make needed changes to the health care system that will redirect our focus from the computer screen to our patients and help us rediscover the joy of medicine.

Here is another article, expressing similar concerns, from the Washington Examiner, published in October 2014 by Richard Pollock:

Another critical article, from the point of view of nursing staff in a hospital:

Here's a good article published in 2016 by Suzanne Coven, in Stat:

Despite these concerns, I do acknowledge the potentially useful role of computers, electronic records systems, therapeutic apps, etc.  But I think this gadgetry must never be focused on at the expense of highly personalized care for each client or patient.  As I have said elsewhere, I think these innovations can be truly great advances, but they can be a bit like giving children gifts at Christmas or birthdays:  children may get excited about a new toy, and may even become conditioned to expect more and more expensive toys as time goes by.  The toys may be great toys!  They could even be "educational"!

But the "gift" that children (and all the rest of us) really want and need is care and attention from loved ones.  Without this, the toys are worthless, and may even cause the children to have a deteriorating, materialistic quality of life.  

The impact of gadgetry and computers in health care affects not only clients or patients, but also caregivers, clinicians, therapists, and office staff.  It is important to consider staff quality of life, and staff satisfaction with work, as essential components in choosing health care strategies.  "Efficiency" and "optimal data collection" may seem to be desirable goals, but such efficiency is insidiously negative if it does not allow for a healthy workplace environment.  This is similar to managing a nation's economy:  a bottom-line view of maximizing economic efficiency may lead to increased overall financial wealth in a society; this is easy to measure, and therefore could be irresistible for policy-makers to follow.   But such optimization of efficiency and wealth can often lead to a decline in the morale and well-being of the population, if it is not balanced by other factors.  A reduction in efficiency, if it means more time for family, and better care of the environment, can sometimes lead to far greater wealth than anything money can buy.  

So in order to move forward with this issue, I do not suggest that we abandon EHR technology.  It is a potentially useful and innovative tool.  But we must never let our tools or toys distract us from providing a caring, empathic, human interaction.  We must never let a pursuit of efficiency or the acquisition of data have a higher order of importance  than caring, empathic, personalized health care. And we must be wary of corporate influences on health care policy, especially when large amounts of money are involved.

If you are affected by this issue, I encourage you to offer constructive feedback to your health care provider.     

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Psychiatrists diagnosing public figures

I was reading an article today discussing the ethical problems involved when psychiatrists or psychologists apply a psychiatric diagnostic label to a public figure.

One big focus of objection in this article had to do with giving a "diagnosis" without actually seeing the person or doing a proper assessment.   Another concern had to do with the propriety of using a "professional voice" as a mental health care specialist to influence a political matter directly, possibly using diagnostic terminology that could have a pejorative quality.  In this case some of the terms of concern include "narcissistic personality disorder."

It's an interesting issue.  My addition to this debate may seem to support both sides of it!  First, I think it is somewhat arrogant on the part of psychiatrists to assume that they ever have some particular diagnostic wisdom, even with ongoing "assessment." Diagnostic terminology such as "narcissism" should be optional, informal language to be used, if at all, with the patient's consent and endorsement, for the purpose of helping the patient improve health.

One particular diagnostic label is arguably determined more exclusively by a person's observed behaviour, and that is antisocial personality.  Evidence about a pervasive pattern of past criminal acts, cheating, cruelty, etc. contribute to the use of the "antisocial" or "psychopathic"  label.  In this case, the motive of such terminology can go beyond that of offering the patient optimal care:  this type of "diagnostic" consideration relates to public safety, for example to evaluate the degree of risk a violent offender or abusive person might have to harm others in the future.

It may be that in some cases a professional such as psychiatrist might have more experience seeing people with potentially dangerous behavioural phenomena, such as antisocial personality, and have some ability to recognize and voice the risks associated with this.  With some cases of antisocial personality, it is possible for there to be an attractive and charming persona which can act as a sort of disguise, leading others to greatly underestimate risks.

I think it is deeply ethical to warn the public about such things.

But, I think it is unethical to wield a diagnostic label as part of some sort of pejorative, rhetorical attack against anyone.

I also think that specialists such as psychiatrists should be a great deal more humble about diagnostic opinions in any case.

A compromise, in my view, could be to voice general concerns about potentially dangerous behavioural syndromes, to share the opinion that such dangers can coexist with a charming and popular personality, and therefore to encourage great caution about following political trends, without very careful reflection on the cognitive biases that can occur in such situations.

This is the same kind of advice a marketing expert or a social psychologist might give to someone who is shopping for a used well-informed about the risks!  The seller may have great integrity, but there is the risk of the seller only having a "facade" of integrity, and of telling you whatever you want to hear, in order to sell you a defective car at a disastrously high price.  There are some ways to be more accurately informed about such integrity, such as by considering patterns of past behaviour involving the person in question.

Psychiatrists should be able to speak freely about political matters, but there are ways to do this without a potentially unethical and inappropriate foray into diagnostic labels.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sugar and Mental Health

There are a lot of people who make dietary recommendations.  It can be hard to figure out whom to believe.

There is a huge amount of money involved in food marketing, weight loss marketing and programs, and books about nutrition.  According to ABC News, the U.S. weight-loss industry brings in about $20 billion of revenue annually.  Another source claimed a worldwide market of a staggering $500 billion or more, for industries related to weight loss.

The issue of weight loss and food policy is a sensitive one, given the high prevalence of obesity as well as eating disorders in the modern world.   These nutritional and metabolic problems are associated with strong feelings of depression and anxiety, negative thoughts and belief about self, guilt, shame, and frustration.   Of course, there are life-threatening physical consequences of obesity as well as of other eating disorders such as anorexia. 

There are now some good documentaries available describing the history and dynamics of the food industry, particularly the industries which supply sugar and corn syrup.  For example, the films "Fed Up" (2014) or  "Sugar Coated" (2015) introduce the viewer to troubling information about large corporations sweetening the world's diet, despite abundant evidence of dangers to health.  The sugar industry has been compared to the tobacco industry, in the way that health concerns have been minimized or suppressed.   A lot of commercial advertising and other marketing directly targets children from an early age; many children associate various sweet food products with play activities, friendly cartoon characters, free toys, etc.  Some fast-food manufacturers sponsor health-related events or even resources for terminally ill children; while such charitable work is admirable, recent documentaries encourage us to consider it comparable to a cigarette manufacturer or a cocaine dealer sponsoring similar charities.   If we associate these companies with such altruism, we may be more apt to feel good about consuming their products.

Ironically, sugar itself is a required component of human metabolism.  Glucose is the main fuel for the brain.

Yet, the best way for the brain to obtain this glucose is from a diet low in sugar!  Pure sugar or other simple carbohydrates in the diet cause a sudden surge in blood glucose, triggering a cascade of hormonal changes.  Aside from the insulin response, there is a surge of pleasure from consuming sugar, which triggers an addictive behavioural sequence.

A habit of consuming sweetened foods leads to a reduction in the consumption of other nutrients.  As one develops a habit of eating sweeter things, non-sweet food items are likely to taste more bland.  It is hard for many people (especially starting off in childhood) to nurture a taste for vegetables when there are candies, ice cream, cake, cookies, or chips to choose instead.

As a component of improving mental and physical health, it is worthwhile to greatly reduce the amount of added sugar in the diet.  This reduction would be satisfying, not only due to direct improvements in your health, but also because you would be shifting your financial support away from a massively wealthy and arguably corrupt food industrial complex, towards a more wholesome industry of local farmers.

Smaller intakes of sweets and simple carbs are likely to improve your appreciation of the esthetics of other food.  Cutting sweets is not some kind of spartan sacrifice!  It will lead to greater joy and hedonic pleasure in your meals!  As you reduce sugar, your "addiction" to it will subside, allowing you to savour the tastes of all other foods, without the flavours being swamped by sweetness.  If you do end up having an occasional sweet treat, you will be able to enjoy it more thoroughly, with a smaller amount of sugar needed in the recipe.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Algorithms in Psychological Health Care

On the one hand, I see the value of having general guidelines for health care providers to follow.  But on the other hand, I see that there are more fundamental principles, such as establishing trusting relationships, practicing listening and interviewing skills, etc., that are far more important as standards of care, than following some kind of mechanical algorithm.   Most of the so-called "algorithmic" elements in managing psychological distress are things that most any clinician or therapist would have studied extensively in their long years of schooling, hence it is potentially quite redundant (and wasteful of time) to dwell at length on the preparation of such standards.    But I do think there are many ways in which care standards could be improved in a caring and collaborative community.  For example, I think that regular multidisciplinary "rounds"-style meetings to jointly discuss ways to manage particular problems, could be a fruitful, meaningful,  immediately useful, intellectually stimulating and robust process.  

Algorithms of care can improve the efficiency of treating disease in a population, particularly when resources are limited, and when individual practices may have idiosyncratic variation.   Good examples of care algorithms which can lead to vast reductions of illness and death, and vast reductions in cost (both in terms of money and of effort), include those for treating cholera or for treating insulin-dependent diabetes.    For cholera, a simple standardized pathway of giving fluid and electrolyte replacement can be readily learned by all caregivers, and can very simply prevent death by dehydration.  For diabetes, standardized glucose monitoring regimes with basic guidance for insulin type and dosing can similarly be learned by all members of a care team (including the patients), leading to great improvements in safety, reductions in diabetes-related medical emergencies, and improvements in long-term morbidity. 

In managing mental illnesses, it can be valuable to consider a similar style of care algorithms. 

Patient Preference

In many cases, a given person may wish to have a certain type of care for a psychiatric problem.  Many patients simply want to talk to someone regularly, and do not necessarily wish to do CBT exercises.   Some patients strongly desire a medication therapy.  Other patients are strongly opposed to having a medication therapy. 

We cannot push patients into a care algorithm which is too rigid to account for patient preferences.  It is, however,  fair to introduce all patients to the various options available. In most cases, different varieties of care (such as different styles of psychotherapy, different specific medications, etc.) have far fewer differences in effectiveness than one might expect.  There are certain generalities for almost all psychiatric syndromes, however:  while all types of psychotherapy are helpful, there is good evidence that ideas from CBT should be encouraged irrespective of the style.  “Formal” CBT is not necessarily superior to “informal CBT,” particularly if a particular patient does not actually wish to have “formal CBT” but rather simply wants a supportive therapist to talk to, or perhaps a trial of psychodynamic therapy.  In practice today, most therapists use eclectic styles, such as a psychodynamically-informed variation of CBT, etc.  

Therapist Preference

Different individual therapists have different backgrounds, personality styles, areas of interest, and strengths.  Some particular therapists may excel in CBT-style therapies.  Other therapists may be experts in meditation.  Others may have a unique eclectic approach.  All of these individual therapist strengths and variations should be nurtured.  While it is good to have some unifying features of care, in the form of care algorithms,  it would be bad for the morale of the staff, and bad for patient care, for all therapists and physicians to have to conform to an identical pathway.  
Once again, patient preference may also guide which therapist would be most suitable; this fact should be respected deeply, especially for such an intimate matter as dealing with a mental health issue. 
Most of us, if were to start seeing a therapist, would want to choose the person we see, based on a variety of personal and professional factors.  
Especially in a university such as UBC which values the notion of diversity and personal autonomy, we should emphasize the ability for students seeing a mental health worker to choose the style of care that they would prefer, within the constraints of the system, as opposed to be sent on a rigidly observed care algorithm. 


Some of the most common clinical presentations in mental health care are of people who have so-called comorbidities.  These are people who meet criteria for more than one formal diagnostic category at the same time.  

Prevalence of comorbidity:  According to Brown et al (2001) a patient with an anxiety disorder diagnosis has a 57% chance of having additional DSM-IV Axis 1 comorbidities; a patient with a mood disorder diagnosis has an 81% chance of having additional DSM-IV Axis 1 comorbidities.  This figure does not even account for Axis II (personality), Axis III (physical health), or Axis IV (psychosocial) comorbidity. 
Barlow’s “Unified Protocol for the Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders” in an example of a therapeutic system which addresses comorbidities, by recognizing what Barlow considered an emotional syndrome which underlies many of the specific diagnostic manifestations.  In their words,

heterogeneity in the expression of emotional disorder symptoms (e.g.,individual differences in the prominence of social anxiety, panic attacks, anhedonia) is regarded as a trivial variation in the manifestation of a broader syndrome. (Farchione et al, 2012)

The example of Barlow’s system carries highly relevant practical wisdom, in terms of running an efficient mental health service:  it is possible to offer a quite similar treatment strategy  to individuals with a broad range of diagnoses and comorbidities. 
In many other cases, a given person may not wish to receive a diagnostic label at all, and a suggested treatment regime for a given diagnosis may be problematic.  Some people may find such labels and ensuing label-specific streams of care to be objectionable or even discriminatory. 
Therefore, given the issue of comorbidities and of clients’ reservations about labeling, it is important to view  “algorithms” with extreme flexibility and sensitivity, and perhaps consider not using them except as a very rough guideline. 

Readiness for Change

A therapeutic philosophy called  “motivational interviewing” is intended to address the fact that many people with the same diagnosis (such as an addiction, a mood disorder, or a relationship problem) may differ in their willingness to participate in a change process, whether this be psychotherapy, medication treatments, or even environmental change (e.g. dropping a course, seeking financial aid, etc.). 
All treatment algorithms must consider the differences between people in their degree of insight about their health concerns, and their willingness or readiness for change. 
It is highly counterproductive to prescribe a change strategy to someone who does not desire it.  And it is also highly counterproductive to simply send such a person away, if they do not choose to participate in a given program of action. 

Therapeutic Alliance

The goodness of the relationship between a patient or client and a caregiver (a therapist, physician, or other support) is strongly related to clinical improvements in all psychiatric conditions.  It is intuitively obvious that this so-called “therapeutic alliance” must be tended to as the highest priority in any care regime.  An algorithm of care must begin by developing a positive, trusting relationship between the patient or client and the caregiver, and the algorithm must not be applied in a mechanical manner which could harm the “therapeutic alliance.”  The research literature about this stretches back for decades.   Martin et al (2000) in a meta-analysis, show that therapeutic alliance is strongly related to outcome.   A more recent research example is Arnow et al (2013), who show that therapeutic alliance is strongly related to improvement in a group of chronically depressed adults; of note, this effect was particularly strong in a subgroup receiving a type of therapy called CBASP, which is similar to the varieties of therapy most commonly recommended in standard care algorithms in the past decade.  

However, it should be noted that problems with the therapeutic alliance are more likely if the severity of symptoms is higher.  In many cases, a factor which impacts care of any serious psychological problem is a difficulty establishing trusting relationships with a caregiver, regardless of the quality of care offered.  Therefore, we may see that therapeutic alliance is excellent in many cases, for particular cohorts, but this may simply be due to the clinical problems in this cohort being mild, rather than the care being somehow exemplary.  Conversely, a clinician dealing with severely symptomatic clients may have lower therapeutic alliance measures, but this could be due to the severity of the clients’ problems, not to problems in the quality or propriety of care.  

But another good recent research paper by DelRe et al (2012) shows that therapeutic alliance is more strongly determined by the therapist than by the client; here is a quote from their conclusion:

In summary, therapist variability in the alliance appears to be more important than patient variability for improved patient outcomes (as assessed with the PTR moderator). This relationship remained significant even when simultaneously controlling for several potential covariates of this relationship. These results suggest that some therapists develop stronger alliances with their patients (irrespective of diagnosis) and that these therapist's patients do better at the conclusion of therapy. (DelRe et al, 2012)

Other recent research shows that a poor therapeutic alliance can not only cause a regime of therapy to be ineffective, it can cause it to be actively harmful.   Goldsmith et al (2015) show that early psychosis patients can benefit from psychotherapy, but are harmed by attending therapeutic sessions with poor therapeutic alliance. 

Therefore, it is important in this “algorithmic” process to remember the massively important issue, which transcends all other issues of technical details, decision trees, etc.–of attending to the therapeutic alliance, by fostering compassionate, wise interpersonal skills in all counseling professionals, as the cornerstone of any algorithm. 

But how to do this?   There are many ideas, but in a collaborative model, it would be a good idea to focus on collaborative teaching and feedback between different clinicians who have varying degrees of experience and skill, as an important element of any care pathway.  

Does Conformity to a “manualized” standard improve clinical outcome? 

There are many so-called “manualized” therapy techniques.  These are designed as an attempt to standardize care, and are particularly useful in research, to determine and measure whether particular styles or techniques are actually better or worse than alternatives.

Yet, existing evidence does not support the notion that variations in therapeutic style strongly impact clinical outcome.  While it is wise for therapists to follow and learn new therapy ideas, such as CBT, the most important thing, once again, is for therapists to develop ways to optimize the therapeutic alliance, rather than focus on particular details from a manualized approach. 

This is also an evolving area of research, one example being Tschuschke et al (2015), who demonstrate that therapists’ adherence to a prescribed treatment regimen should be flexible, particularly for people who have more severe symptoms or problems.  According to the authors, such flexibility is more consistently present in more experienced therapists, and may reflect, in general, the degree of competence in the therapist. 

We can speculate that therapists might have to make sure that the therapeutic process can continue and that the relationship is improving or at least stabilizing on an acceptable level, so as to assure that the treatment can continue. This probably includes therapists easing their treatment protocol temporarily. Thus, treatment adherence in psychotherapy is not always a stable factor but instead depends on therapists’ level of professional experience, clients’ abilities to establish a good enough working alliance, and the climate of the therapeutic cooperation in the dyad, although it might, on average, remain on a relatively low level in most sessions. Nevertheless, the flexibility of therapists treatment adherence reactions seems to impact treatment outcomes substantially if clients’ severity of psychological problems hampers the working alliance. (Tschuschke et al, 2015)

Therefore, with respect to algorithms of care, it should be emphasized that flexibility must be called for in their interpretation, particularly for the many clinical situations in which there are complications or difficulties due to higher levels of severity, complexity, therapeutic alliance problems, or limitations due to low readiness for change. 


Brown, T. A., Campbell, L. A., Lehman, C. L., Grisham, J. R., & Mancill, R. B. (2001). Current and lifetime comorbidity of the DSM-IV anxiety and mood disorders in a large clinical sample. Journal of abnormal psychology, 110(4), 585.

Del Re, A. C., Fl├╝ckiger, C., Horvath, A. O., Symonds, D., & Wampold, B. E. (2012). Therapist effects in the therapeutic alliance–outcome relationship: A restricted-maximum likelihood meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 32(7), 642-649.
Farchione, T. J., Fairholme, C. P., Ellard, K. K., Boisseau, C. L., Thompson-Hollands, J., Carl, J. R., ... & Barlow, D. H. (2012). Unified protocol for transdiagnostic treatment of emotional disorders: a randomized controlled trial. Behavior therapy, 43(3), 666-678
Goldsmith, L. P., Lewis, S. W., Dunn, G., & Bentall, R. P. (2015). Psychological treatments for early psychosis can be beneficial or harmful, depending on the therapeutic alliance: an instrumental variable analysis. Psychological medicine, 45(11), 2365-2373.
Martin, D. J., Garske, J. P., & Davis, M. K. (2000). Relation of the therapeutic alliance with outcome and other variables: a meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 68(3), 438.
Tschuschke, V., Crameri, A., Koehler, M., Berglar, J., Muth, K., Staczan, P., ... & Koemeda-Lutz, M. (2015). The role of therapists' treatment adherence, professional experience, therapeutic alliance, and clients' severity of psychological problems: Prediction of treatment outcome in eight different psychotherapy approaches. Preliminary results of a naturalistic study. Psychotherapy Research, 25(4), 420-434.

Addendum (March 9, 2017):

Here's an interesting Pew Research article, looking at the pros and cons of algorithms in health care and other areas:
The authors argue that algorithmic approaches, while improving efficiency in some ways, also carry the risk of deepening divides and creating filter bubbles.  They can rely on biased data, may particularly have negative effects on people who are poor, less educated, and disadvantaged, and can limit freedom of choice.