Psychotherapy and the trustworthiness of randomised controlled trials

One of the criticisms levelled at psychoanalytic psychotherapy is the absence of evidence for its effectiveness and, especially, the absence of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). By comparing outcomes for randomly selected groups of individuals who receive different treatments or none, these trials set out to prove the effectiveness or not of treatments. RCT is often described as the gold standard of research. In the past, psychoanalytic psychotherapists have been reluctant generally to undertake research and especially research that uses RCTs. This attitude towards research seems to be changing with an increasing number of research studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of psychoanalytic psychotherapy. See, for example, my blog post ‘Psychodynamic psychotherapy brings lasting benefits through self-knowledge’ – http://goo.gl/40fiy.

More research into the efficacy of psychoanalytic psychotherapy is certainly desirable and as practitioners we should be self-critical enough to welcome external validation of our methods. However, it’s worth also being aware that much medical research, including RCTs, is less scientifically sound than is often thought.

A recent article in the Atlantic describes the work of John Ioannidis and his team at the University of Ioannina. See http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/11/lies-damned-lies-and-medical-science/8269/

The team is investigating the credibility of published biomedical research, including looking at studies that were originally thought to be conclusive, but have later proved to be incorrect. In one of their papers they looked at 49 of the most highly regarded and frequently cited medical papers published in the last 13 years. Of these papers, 45 contained claims for effective interventions, but only 34 of these had been retested, leaving 11 without independent verification. Of those studies that were retested, 14 or 41% ‘had been convincingly shown to be wrong or significantly exaggerated’. So two fifths of these key papers, when retested, were shown to be misleading, papers that were widely cited and referred to by physicians for guidance.

Also worrying was the persistent influence of these misleading studies. The article mentions ‘three prominent health studies from the 1980s and 1990s that were each later soundly refuted…(where) researchers continued to cite the original results as correct more often than as flawed—in one case for at least 12 years after the results were discredited’.

The Atlantic article describes several factors that Ioannidis claims can distort research outcomes and influence the likelihood of publication. These include the pressures of competition for funding and academic success, and plain wish fulfilment on the part of the researchers.

Research into all forms of therapy is to be welcomed. However, the efficacy of some approaches is more easily investigated with RCTs and these forms of therapy are often held up as having a more secure evidence base. These are claims that should be challenged. The work of Ioannidis and his team shows that RCTs do not necessarily provide a trustworthy and scientific proof of efficacy.

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