Phone Therapy Helps Depression

By Amir Khan on June 6, 2012 8:39 AM EDT

Taking Depression to the Heart
Depressed patients benefit greatly from phone therapy, according to a new study. (Photo: flickr.com/fakelvis)

Many depressed patients drop out of therapy before it has a chance to work, but according to a new study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, patients are more likely to stick with therapy if it's administered over the phone.

"Telephone therapy was able to reduce dropout," Dr. Joyce Ho, study coauthor and research assistant professor at Northwestern University, told WebMD. "Four out of five who got therapy over the phone could complete 18 weeks of treatment, while only two out of three assigned to face-to-face therapy could complete treatment."

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Researchers randomly assigned 325 patients with major depression to receive depression either face-to-face or over the phone for 18 weeks. The majority of the dropouts in the face-to-face group were in the first few weeks, indicating that phone therapy is able to overcome the barriers of traditional therapy, such as transportation, time constrains or the effort it takes to get dressed and leave the house, which may be difficult for someone with depression, researchers said.

Phone therapy was just as effective as face-to-face as well, which makes it a very viable option, according to the study.

"After 18 weeks of treatment, the depression declines were equivalent in the two groups," Ho told WebMD.

Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, who was not involved in the study, told HealthDay that insurance companies should authorize phone therapy for depressed patients.

"Telephone therapy is accessible, and it works so well that insurance companies should be paying for this. It may not be a substitute for all face-to-face therapy, but it could be part of the continuum of depression treatment."

Although the patients received similar benefits from both phone and face-to-face therapy, researchers said six months after therapy ended, the patients who underwent face-to-face therapy were less depressed.

"Apparently there is an advantage of doing therapy face-to-face, but the reason is not clear," Stefan Hofmann, a psychology professor at Boston University, who was not part of the study, told Reuters.

Researchers said the difference between groups wasn't because in person therapy is better, but because more depressed patients are less likely to continue with it. Hoffman said a combination of phone and traditional might be the best option for depression treatment.

"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 told Reuters. 

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