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A meta-review of the available research into cognitive behavioural therapy reveals it consistently improves health-related quality of life across different medical conditions and demographic populations.

Illustration of a brain

The effectiveness of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as a treatment for psychological and physical conditions has been researched extensively. Hundreds of studies have examined whether the psychological therapy, that aims to change patients’ thinking patterns and behaviour, is capable of treating a range of conditions, from depression and anxiety, to living with pain or addiction.

 

The goal of this review was to explore this vast body work to evaluate the consistency of CBT’s effect across different conditions demographic groups and contexts, and whether it produces a general positive effect on health-related quality of life.

Beth Fordham, Senior Psychology Research Fellow and lead author of the review said: “We found that the effect of CBT across all the different health conditions which were tested in our included reviews was consistent. Our measure was the effect on patients’ health-related quality of life, which can be calculated for mental health issues, as well as physical conditions such as back pain, and was the only measure which crosses all the different ailments.”

The findings suggest there may be a generic mechanism which helps people living with any physical or mental health condition to improve their quality of life. Even for conditions that had not yet been tested and where there was no available data, such as with rare conditions, the models showed that CBT would be an effective treatment.

“The implications are that we should offer CBT to people living with any physical or mental health condition,” said Beth, “And to explore ways to deliver treatment or training in person or online, and to a wider and international set of patients.”

So, could CBT be a solution during the COVID-19 pandemic when many people are suffering from isolation, health workers may be experiencing trauma and PTSD, and anxiety is increasing? “Our research shows that it has been tested, and it works,” said Beth. “While we usually encourage people to see a psychologist, or other healthcare professional, CBT can also be delivered via digital platforms. The process is scientific and testable, helping to change thinking and behaviour, so the general benefit which CBT offers would be of great help, with positive effects lasting 12 months.”

The research included 494 reviews from between 1992 and 2019, which equated to 221,128 participants, and represented 14 physical and 13 mental conditions according to the World Health Organisation's International Classification of Diseases.

There was a gap in the data from different cultures and countries and one of the principal recommendations from the study is not just to review different ethnic and socio-economic groups, but to see if there are differences that could be adapted to deliver CBT in countries within Asia, South America and Africa.

The project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment (HTA).

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