Study: Online CBT Equally Effective for Health Anxiety

May 18, 2020 | Science Talk | 0 comments

For people who are stuck at home due to the CORVID-19, physical disabilities, or mental/cognitive problems, there was a recent study looking at the effectiveness of Cognitive Based Therapy (CBT) performed online or through telehealth.

By: Rick Nauert PhD, Associate News Editor
Date: 14 May 2020

A new study by Swedish researchers compared online delivery of cognitive-behavioral therapy to that of face-to-face CBT for the treatment of health anxiety. Researchers found that Internet-delivered treatment had comparable effects, and could serve as an alternative to physical meetings in helping people who are worried about their health.

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet evaluated around 200 study participants with half receiving CBT over the Internet and half conventional face-to-face CBT.

“The study is unique in that it is the first direct comparison of face-to-face CBT and Internet-delivered CBT for health anxiety,” said Dr. Erik Hedman-Lagerlöf, professor of psychology and researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet.

“The results show that a treatment delivered exclusively online is sufficient to achieve tough and required behavioral changes. This is especially relevant now when the coronavirus pandemic limits our opportunities for physical meetings, while the fear of being affected by a severe health condition is discussed more frequently.”

Health anxiety, also referred to as hypochondriasis, is characterized by an excessive and persistent fear or worry about serious illness. It often leads to significant suffering and functional impairment. , About 3.5 percent of the general population and up to 20 percent of patients in medical clinics are estimated to suffer from the condition, which causes great strain on the health care system.

In face-to-face CBT, which typically involves weekly sessions with a mental health clinician, about two thirds of patients respond to treatment. However, given the prevalence of health anxiety and scarcity of mental health professionals, the need for treatment far exceeds the availability of evidence-based face-to-face therapy.

Therefore, in the new study researchers wanted to examine the effect of an Internet-based treatment where the patient has access to information online and communicates regularly with a therapist through an email-like system. The patient also engages in behavioral changes in their day-to-day life, just as in the case of face-to-face CBT.

In the study, 204 adults with health anxiety were randomized to receive either face-to-face or Internet CBT for a period of 12 weeks. The participants were asked to rate their level of health anxiety each week using a standardized questionnaire commonly referred to as the Health Anxiety Inventory.

According to the researchers, Internet CBT had effects largely on par with the face-to-face treatment. This was despite the fact that the average Internet-therapist spent only 10 minutes per patient per week compared with about 45 minutes in the other group.

“One significant advantage is that the therapist can help more patients in the same time, but also that the treatment can be delivered regardless of the patient’s geographical location, including to people living in rural areas,” said Dr. Erland Axelsson, psychologist and researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet.

“The fact that you can access the content and communicate with your therapist at any time of the day also means that people who struggle to take time off from work can take part in treatment.”

Another positive aspect of online CBT is that patients who are reluctant to seek psychological treatment due to perceived stigma may be more inclined to seek help, Erland Axelsson adds.

The study was conducted from 2014 to 2020 as a collaboration between Gustavsberg’s primary care clinic and Karolinska Institutet.

The study appears in JAMA Psychiatry.