Psychiatric Annals

CME 

The Cost-Effectiveness of Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy

Allan Abbass, MD, FRCPC; Jeffrey W. Katzman, MD

Abstract

CME Educational Objectives

1. Expose the reader to various sources of health care costs and diagnoses responsible for these.

2. Review the evidence for multiple categories of cost reduction for intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP).

3. Review the return-to-work rates for patients receiving ISTDP treatment.

The health care burden of chronic disability, with mental illness and somatic symptom disorders leading the way, is crippling to global economies. In the recent JAMA report by the U.S. Burden of Disease Collaborators, the top diseases with the largest number of years lived with disability in 2010 were low back pain, major depressive disorder, other musculoskeletal disorders, neck pain, and anxiety disorders. Migraine, drug use, alcohol use and dysthymia were also in the top 20. The authors noted that half of the health system cost is due to disability and morbidity.

Abstract

CME Educational Objectives

1. Expose the reader to various sources of health care costs and diagnoses responsible for these.

2. Review the evidence for multiple categories of cost reduction for intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP).

3. Review the return-to-work rates for patients receiving ISTDP treatment.

The health care burden of chronic disability, with mental illness and somatic symptom disorders leading the way, is crippling to global economies. In the recent JAMA report by the U.S. Burden of Disease Collaborators, the top diseases with the largest number of years lived with disability in 2010 were low back pain, major depressive disorder, other musculoskeletal disorders, neck pain, and anxiety disorders. Migraine, drug use, alcohol use and dysthymia were also in the top 20. The authors noted that half of the health system cost is due to disability and morbidity.

The health care burden of chronic disability, with mental illness and somatic symptom disorders leading the way, is crippling to global economies.1 In the recent JAMA report by the U.S. Burden of Disease Collaborators, the top diseases with the largest number of years lived with disability in 2010 were low back pain, major depressive disorder, other musculoskeletal disorders, neck pain, and anxiety disorders. Migraine, drug use, alcohol use and dysthymia were also in the top 20. The authors noted that half of the health system cost is due to disability and morbidity.1

Based on extensive research during the past 20 years, psychotherapy is now acknowledged to be an effective and cost-effective treatment for a broad range of conditions.2 Given evidence that psychotherapy is beneficial, the relative cost of treatment has become an important consideration in clinical decision making.3 With this in mind, the shorter and less expensive a psychotherapy model can be while retaining effectiveness, the greater the effect it can have on widespread health system costs.

Based on long wait lists and wait times for long-term psychotherapy in public clinics, Habib Davanloo, MD, of McGill University developed his method of intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP) between the 1970s and 2000s.4 Thus, two major reasons for this development were to improve service access and to reduce service cost per patient in publically funded Canadian medicine.

ISTDP is a brief treatment designed to achieve broad-based gains across symptoms and personality difficulties. At its core, the objective of ISTDP is to help patients overcome emotional blocks that lead to occupational disability, somatic symptoms, depression, anxiety, and self-defeating behaviors. The method includes a specialized series of interventions designed to overcome high levels of resistance, low levels of emotional tolerance (depression, somatization, conversion), and dissociation (fragile character structure). ISTDP has been studied empirically with evidence supporting its effectiveness across the range of conditions described above, including anxiety, depression, back pain, headache, and chronic pain, as well as other conditions such as personality disorders.5

Because it is a brief model of therapy, averaging fewer than 20 sessions in published studies, one would expect it to be more cost-effective when compared to longer treatments. Since it addresses characterological problems and treatment resistance as well as symptoms, ISTDP may also prove cost-effective relative to treatments that focus on only one component of the patient’s problem.

In this article, available published studies that evaluate ISTDP’s effects on health service costs, disability costs, and medication costs are reviewed.

Current State of Cost-Effectiveness Evidence

In 2012, we published a review of all the available outcome studies of ISTDP retrieved through a broad literature search.5 This search was repeated in April 2013. Each of these articles was scanned for any notation of cost and service use measurement. All such measures were tabulated.

These data were tabulated and reviewed in terms of total cost-benefits and then again separately by health service use, medication use, and employment/disability costs.

Overall Cost-Effectiveness

A total of 13 studies included cost-bearing measures. Treatments ranged from an average of one session to 27.7 sessions and averaged 15.3 (SD 8.2) sessions overall. Two articles6, 7 included a sub-sample of Abbass, 2002a;8 one was an extension of Cornelissen et al, 2002,9 with a larger sample and longer follow-up,10 and the other involved a follow-up evaluation from an earlier study.11 Three studies included inpatients in an acute care hospital12 or residential treatment facility,9,10 whereas the remainder involved out-patient samples.13–19 In all, the studies included two randomized, controlled trials13,15 and three non-randomized, controlled trials.8,12,17 The remainder were case series.

These publications included five studies of mixed psychiatric samples, three of personality disorders, one of treatment resistant depression, one of panic disorder, one of chronic headache and one of medically unexplained symptoms. A further study published in this volume examined the cost-effectiveness of ISTDP provided by psychiatry residents. The mixed samples included patients with most DSM-IV diagnostic groups, including major depression, anxiety disorders, substance-use disorders, bipolar disorder, dissociative disorders, eating disorders, and psychotic disorders. Thus, the studies combined reflect the broad utility of this method in clinical practice (see Table 1).

Study Description and Reported Cost Reductions After ISTDP Treatment

Table 1.

Study Description and Reported Cost Reductions After ISTDP Treatment

Data reported in the studies included different outcome domains of health care use, medication use, and disability costs. Data were not reported in a uniform fashion between studies and had varying follow-up periods. The cost reductions reported ranged from $910 counting only emergency visit cost reduction over 1 year of follow-up to $10,148 per patient counting disability cost and medication cost reduction over 2 years of follow-up (see Table 1).

Medication Use and Cost

Seven studies included medication use and cost measures (see Table 2). These included studies of panic disorder, headache, treatment-resistant depression, personality disorder, and mixed disorders. The mean number of medications reduced per medicated patient was 0.92 (SD .29) medications. The mean percent of these patients stopping all medications was 59.7%, including those provided only one session of treatment, and increased to 74.5% when excluding this group. The mean cost reduction in the follow-up intervals was $558.5 (SD 226).

Medication Use and Cost Reduction

Table 2.

Medication Use and Cost Reduction

Health Service Use and Cost Reduction

Six studies included measures of health service use and costs. Three studies reported reductions in hospital use. Two showed modest reductions in physician use. One reported reductions in combined hospital and physician costs. One showed a 69% reduction in repeat emergency visits in patients with medically unexplained symptoms, whereas another showed a nearly two-thirds reduction in electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) use. These last two studies included naturalistic, non-randomized control patients who did not experience any such service use reduction (see Table 3).

Health Service Use and Cost

Table 3.

Health Service Use and Cost

Employment Rates and Reduced Cost of Disability

Seven studies reported changes in employment status and/or disability costs (see Table 4). Patients in these samples were disabled for a long period of time, averaging 67.2 weeks out of work. Overall, there were large cost reductions owed to high return-to-work rates. Between-study average rates of return to work were 68.4% when including a study of single-session trial therapies and 77.4% when not including this study. Cost reductions ranged from $6,720 per patient during a follow-up period of 6 months to $28,114 per patient during a 1-year follow-up period.

Employment Rates and Reduced Cost of Disability

Table 4.

Employment Rates and Reduced Cost of Disability

Cost Outcome by Therapeutic Work

The therapeutic objective of ISTDP is to facilitate an emotional healing process by allying with an individual’s natural drive toward health to confront self-destructive psychological defenses and anxiety. Through this process, complex feelings are mobilized and experienced, overcoming anxiety and defenses against these feelings. This triggering event brings images and linkages to unprocessed pathogenic emotions. All of this is a process Davanloo4 and several of his patients called “unlocking the unconscious.” The degree of unlocking, or dominance of therapeutic forces over defenses, has been studied in relation to cost-effectiveness in two studies. In Town et al,20 patients with at least one high-level unlocking, called major unlocking, during treatment had significantly greater health care cost reductions. Abbass8 found those with major unlockings had greater rates of return to work [(100% (14/14) versus 50% (4/8)] and cessation of all medications [(92.6 (25/27) versus 37.5% (6/16)] versus those without major unlockings.

Costs of Providing ISTDP

To consider cost-effectiveness, we must consider the costs of providing the treatment. Six studies noted an average therapy cost of $1,471 for treatment averaging 13.1 sessions (see Table 5).

Costs of ISTDP Treatment

Table 5.

Costs of ISTDP Treatment

Discussion

This mixed set of studies with diverse samples provides further data that ISTDP is a cost-effective treatment. Large cost reductions compared favorably with relatively low cost estimates of $1,471 per treated case. It is of further interest to see cost reductions correlating with what is considered the key therapeutic ingredient of ISTDP, emotional experiencing.8,20 This adds further data to the notion that emotional processing and experiencing is a key variable in psychodynamic psychotherapy,21,22 if not in psychotherapy overall.

The evidence for cost reduction in disabled workers bears underscoring, as this societal burden is a major drain on global economies where positions must be backfilled at great expense. As noted in Table 4, more than two-thirds of disabled patients were able to make a return to work with a relatively short treatment course after long disabilities. Because of the efficacy of this treatment in resistant and complex populations, it appears to facilitate returns to work even in patients unemployed for years. This is a striking finding considering population return-to-work rates after 6 months disability are otherwise less than 50%, and rates after 1 year of disability are very low to negligible.23,24 Based on available data showing IST-DP is effective with the most common sources of disability, it represents an inexpensive approach to these major sources of economic burden.1

These data from published studies have an array of limitations to consider. First, therapists in most of these studies were trained and experienced, calling into question the generalizability of the findings. The notable exception to this was the case series treated by psychiatry residents.19 Second, all cost-bearing figures were not available in all studies, and it is unclear in most studies which cost measures were determined a priori. This raises the likelihood of reporting bias; thus, greater weight should be given to those studies with more complete reporting. Third, the majority of these studies were not controlled, so the causes of cost reduction may not relate to treatment factors. Fourth, samples and reporting time frames were highly diverse rendering combined analysis and comparison of the data difficult. Finally, study quality, including verification of treatment adherence, was highly variable,5 limiting our ability to determine the quality of cost-based outcome evidence.

Conclusion

This series of studies provides evidence that this brief treatment is cost-effective when applied to a wide range of patients with benefits noted in studies across several cost domains. Future research in ISTDP should include further controlled trials with clearly defined a priori cost measures and reporting of all possible cost-related outcomes. Further research should examine which of the ingredients, such as emotional experiencing, bring greater costs effects with specific populations. This could inform tailoring of psychotherapy approaches to specific populations in order to enhance cost benefits.

References

  1. U.S. Burden of Disease Collaborators. The State of U.S. Health, 1990–2010: Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors. JAMA. 2013;310(6):591–608.
  2. American Psychological Association. Recognition of Psychotherapy Effectiveness. Available at: www.apa.org/about/policy/resolution-psychotherapy.aspx. August2012.
  3. Lazar SG. Psychotherapy Is Worth It: A Comprehensive Review of Its Cost-Effectiveness. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing Inc.; 2010.
  4. Davanloo H. Unlocking the Unconscious: Selected Papers of Habib Davanloo. Chichester, West Sussex, England: Wiley; 1990..
  5. Abbass A, Town JM, Driessen E. Intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy: a systematic review and meta-analysis of outcome research. Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2012;20(2):97–108. doi:10.3109/10673229.2012.677347 [CrossRef]
  6. Abbass A. Intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy in a private psychiatric office: clinical and cost effectiveness. Am J Psychother. 2002;56(2):252–232.
  7. Abbass A, Lovas D, Purdy A. Direct diagnosis and management of emotional factors in chronic headache patients. Cephalalgia. 2008;28(12):1305–1314. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2982.2008.01680.x [CrossRef]
  8. Abbass A. Office-based research in intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP): data from the first 6 years of practice. Ad Hoc Bulletin of Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy. 2002;6(2):5–14.
  9. Cornelissen K, Verheul R. Treatment outcome of residential treatment with ISTDP. Ad Hoc Bulletin of Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy. 2002; 6:14–23.
  10. Cornelissen K, Smeets D, Willemsen S, Busschbach JJV, Verheul R. Long-term follow-up of a residential form of intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy in personality disorders. (In preparation)
  11. Abbass A. Cost-effectiveness of short-term dynamic psychotherapy. Expert Rev Pharmacoecon Outcomes Res. 2003;3(5):535–539. doi:10.1586/14737167.3.5.535 [CrossRef]
  12. Abbass A, Bernier D, Town J. Intensive Short-term dynamic psychotherapy associated with decreases in electroconvulsive therapy on adult acute care inpatient ward. Psychother Psychosom. 2013; in press. doi:10.1159/000350576 [CrossRef]
  13. Wiborg IM, Dahl AA. Does brief dynamic psychotherapy reduce relapse rate of panic disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1996;53:689–694. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1996.01830080041008 [CrossRef]
  14. Abbass A. Intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy of treatment-resistant depression: a pilot study. Depress Anxiety. 2006;23(7):449–452. doi:10.1002/da.20203 [CrossRef]
  15. Abbass A, Sheldon A, Gyra A, Kalpin A. Intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy for DSM-IV personality disorders: a randomized controlled trial. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2008;196(3):211–216. doi:10.1097/NMD.0b013e3181662ff0 [CrossRef]
  16. Abbass A, Joffres MR, Ogrodniczuk JS. A naturalistic study of intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy trial therapy. Brief Treatment Crisis Intervention. 2008;8(2):164–170. doi:10.1093/brief-treatment/mhn001 [CrossRef]
  17. Abbass A, Campbell S, Magee K, Tarzwell R. Intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy to reduce rates of emergency department return visits for patients with medically unexplained symptoms: preliminary evidence from a pre-post intervention study. CJEM. 2009;11(6):529–534.
  18. Abbass A, Campbell S, Magee K, Lenzer I, Hann G, Tarzwell R. Cost savings of treatment of medically unexplained symptoms using intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP) by a hospital emergency department. J Acad Med Psychol. 2010;2(1):34–44.
  19. Abbass A, Rasic D, Kisely S, Katzman J. Residency training in intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy: methods and cost-effectiveness. Psychiatr Ann. 2013;43(11):501–506.
  20. Town JM, Abbass A, Bernier D. Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of Davanloo’s intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy: does unlocking the unconscious make a difference. Am J Psychother. 2013;67(1):89–108.
  21. Abbass A, Kisely S, Kroenke K. Short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy for somatic symptom disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychother Psychosom. 2009;78(5):265–274. doi:10.1159/000228247 [CrossRef]
  22. Diener MJ, Hilsenroth MJ, Weinberger J. Therapist affect focus and patient outcomes in psychodynamic psychotherapy: a meta-analysis. Am J Psychiatry. 2007;164(6):936–941. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.164.6.936 [CrossRef]
  23. Conroy M. Supporting an injured worker to return to work. Review commissioned by the Workplace Safety Initiative Dublin, Ireland. Available at: hwww.wsi.ie/Sectors/WSI/wsidoclib3.nsf/9d1880aeabc958bb80256edf004936cb/5a1a46b73f49d5ed802572cd00376a1c/$FILE/42094%20IBEC%20Retention%20Doc_interactive.pdf. Accessed Aug. 25, 2013.
  24. Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. Managing for Wellness: Disability Management Handbook for Managers in the Federal Public Service. Section 5.0 Support for Recovery. Available at: www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/hrh/dmi-igi/wds-mst/disability-incapacite07-eng.asp. Accessed on Accessed Aug. 25, 2013.

Study Description and Reported Cost Reductions After ISTDP Treatment

Sample n Number of Sessions Control Reference Time Period Cost Domains Included Total Cost Reduction Per ISTDP-Treated Patient
Panic disorder13 40 15 Clomipramine alone. Randomized. 18-month follow-up after stopping clomipramine Medication use rates only
Mixed sample8 166 16.9 Wait list. Non-randomized. Before vs. 1.75-year passive follow-up Medication use, disability rates
Mixed sample6* 89 14.9 1–2 years post vs. 1 year pre Hospital costs, physician costs, medication costs, disability costs $6,202
Personality disorders9 93 Up to 6 months 2 years post vs. 1 year pre Hospital costs, physician costs, health professionals cost. Utilization rates only
Mixed sample11 88 14.9 3 years follow-up vs. projections Hospital costs, physician costs $1,827
Treatment-resistant depression14 10 13.6 6 months post vs. 6 months pre Hospital costs, medication costs, disability costs $5,688
Chronic headache7* 29 19.7 1 year post vs. 1 year pre Medication costs, disability costs $7,009
Personality disorder15 27 27.7 Randomized wait list 2 years post vs. 1 year pre Medication costs, disability costs $10,148
Mixed sample. Trial therapy16 30 1 Pre vs. 1 month post Employment rate, medication use only
Medically unexplained symptoms17, 18 50 3.8 Non-randomized. Patients referred but not seen 1 year post vs. 1 year pre Medical (emergency) visits and costs $910
Personality disorder10§ 155 Up to 6 months 10 years post vs. 1 year pre Employment rates only
Psychiatry inpatients12 33 9.0 Other psychiatric ward. Non-randomized. 1 year post vs. 1 year pre Electroconvulsive therapy costs $1,400§
Mixed sample19 140 9.9 3 years post vs. 1 year pre Physician costs, hospital costs $3,773

Medication Use and Cost Reduction

Study Sample Number of Medications Stopped per Medicated Patient Percent of All Medication Stopped Percent of Cases Stopping all Medications Medication Cost Reduction per Medicated Patient
Panic disorder13 ≥ 0.80 80% 80%
Mixed sample8 69%
Mixed sample6 0.83 71% $454 / year
Treatment-resistant depression14 1.4 56% 30% $880 / 6 months
Chronic headache7 0.83 65.2% $360 / year
Personality disorder15 1.1 74% $540 / 2 years
Mixed sample: trial therapy16 0.55 35%*

Health Service Use and Cost

Study Sample Hospital Use Reduction Hospital Cost Reduction Physician Service Use Reduction Physician Costs Health Service Health Service Cost Reduction Total Health Care Cost Reduction Per Treated Case
Mixed sample6 85% $338 / 1 year 33% $206 / 1 year $544 / 1 year
Personality disorder9 2% had psychiatric hospitalization vs. 20.9% before 18% saw psychiatrist / psychologist vs. 27.5% before 8% saw general practitioner vs. 4.4% before 30% had outpatient psychotherapy vs. 39.6% before
Mixed sample11 $ 1,827 / 3 years
Treatment-resistant depression14 $1,440 / 6 months $1,440 / 6 months
Medically unexplained symptoms17, 18 69% reduction in emergency department visits $910/ 1 year $910 / 1 year
Psychiatry inpatients12 - 65.2% drop in ECT services $1,400/ 1 year $1,400 / 1 year
Mixed sample19 - $3,084 / 3 years $393 / 3 years $3,733 / 3 years

Employment Rates and Reduced Cost of Disability

Sample Total Number Unemployed Duration Off Work Pre-ISTDP (In Weeks) Rate of Return to Work Total Cost Reduction Per Treated Unemployed Patient
Mixed sample8 31 113.1 80.6
Mixed sample6 22 53.3 81.2 $21,899 / 1 year
Treatment-resistant depression14 5 104 80 $6,720 / 6 months
Chronic headache7 7 54 100 $28,114 / 1 year
Personality disorder15 10 63.6 90 $25,920 / 2 years
Mixed sample. Trial therapy16 14 15 14.3*
Personality disorder10 97 32.7

Costs of ISTDP Treatment

Study Number of Sessions Setting Cost Estimate Per Case
Mixed sample6 14.9 Private psychiatric office $ 1,680
Personality disorder15 27.7 Public and private offices $ 3,370
Medically unexplained symptoms17 3.8 Hospital clinic $ 404
Psychiatric inpatients12 9.0 Hospital clinic ∼ $1,400
Mixed sample19 9.9 Hospital clinic ∼ $500
Unweighted means 13.1 $ 1,471
Authors

Allan Abbass, MD, FRCPC, is Professor and Director of Education, as well as Director, Centre for Emotions and Health, Dalhousie University Department of Psychiatry. Jeffrey W. Katzman, MD, is Professor and Vice Chair, Education and Academic Affairs, University of New Mexico Department of Psychiatry.

Address correspondence to: Allan Abbass, MD, FRCPC, Room 8203, 5909 Veterans Memorial Lane, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada B3H 2E2; email: allan.abbass@dal.ca.

Disclosure: Drs. Abbass and Katzman have no relevant financial relationships to disclose.

10.3928/00485713-20131105-04

Sign up to receive

Journal E-contents