Phone-based therapy for depressed patients may be a good call

Considering that about a quarter of primary care visits involve patients who are depressed, it can be frustrating when physicians recommend treatment only to see patients fail to follow through. But new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that many of the barriers to face-to-face therapy, such as travel and taking time away from work and family, can be overcome by conducting cognitive therapy over the phone, NPR reported. According to the researchers from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, not only is phone-based therapy just as effective as in-person counseling, but patients tend to stick with the treatment longer.

For the study, lead researcher David Mohr, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern, and colleagues conducted a randomized trial of 325 primary care patients in the Chicago area who had major depressive disorder from November 2007 to December 2010, Medpage Today reported. All patients had 18 sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy on the same schedule within an 18-week time period, either over the phone or face-to-face.

During the first five weeks of treatment, 13 percent of the face-to-face group dropped out, versus 4 percent of the phone-therapy group. In the ensuing weeks, drop-out rates were similar between groups. Also closely matched were results: Both treatments significantly improved depression, with no between-group differences at 18 weeks in terms of physician- or self-reported depression scores.

However, the team did note that patients were more likely to maintain behavioral health improvements six months after treatment ended if they'd attended traditional in-person therapy, suggesting more follow-up may be needed with the alternative approach. "If the finding that face-to-face treatment produces better maintenance of gains after treatment cessation is not an artifact, it suggests that longer-term follow-up is critical in research examining the effects of tele-mental health intervention and telemedicine more broadly," researchers wrote.

To learn more:
- read the article from MedPage Today
- see the post from NPR
- access the study from JAMA