Re-evaluating randomized clinical trials of psychological interventions: Impact of response shift on the interpretation of trial results

M. G. E. Verdam, W. van Ballegooijen, C. J. M. Holtmaat, H. Knoop, J. Lancee, F. J. Oort, H. Riper, A. van Straten, I. M. Verdonck-de Leeuw, M. de Wit, T. van der Zweerde, M. A. G. Sprangers

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Background Effectiveness of psychological treatment is often assessed using patient-reported health evaluations. However, comparison of such scores over time can be hampered due to a change in the meaning of self-evaluations, called 'response shift'. Insight into the occurrence of response shift seems especially relevant in the context of psychological interventions, as they often purposefully intend to change patients' frames of reference. Aims The overall aim is to gain insight into the general relevance of response shift for psychological health intervention research. Specifically, the aim is to re-analyse data of published randomized controlled trials (RCTs) investigating the effectiveness of psychological interventions targeting different health aspects, to assess (1) the occurrence of response shift, (2) the impact of response shift on interpretation of treatment effectiveness, and (3) the predictive role of clinical and background variables for detected response shift. Method We re-analysed data from RCTs on guided internet delivered cognitive behavioural treatment (CBT) for insomnia in the general population with and without elevated depressive symptoms, an RCT on meaning-centred group psychotherapy targeting personal meaning for cancer survivors, and an RCT on internet-based CBT treatment for persons with diabetes with elevated depressive symptoms. Structural equation modelling was used to test the three objectives. Results We found indications of response shift in the intervention groups of all analysed datasets. However, results were mixed, as response shift was also indicated in some of the control groups, albeit to a lesser extent or in opposite direction. Overall, the detected response shifts only marginally impacted trial results. Relations with selected clinical and background variables helped the interpretation of detected effects and their possible mechanisms. Conclusion This study showed that response shift effects can occur as a result of psychological health interventions. Response shift did not influence the overall interpretation of trial results, but provide insight into differential treatment effectiveness for specific symptoms and/or domains that can be clinically meaningful.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0252035
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 25 May 2021

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