Effectiveness and cost effectiveness of counselling in primary care

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006 Jul 19;(3):CD001025. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001025.pub2.


Background: The prevalence of mental health and psychosocial problems in primary care is high. This review examines the clinical and cost-effectiveness of psychological therapies provided in primary care by counsellors.

Objectives: To assess the effectiveness and cost effectiveness of counselling in primary care by reviewing cost and outcome data in randomised controlled trials for patients with psychological and psychosocial problems considered suitable for counselling.

Search strategy: To update the review, the following electronic databases were searched on 25-10-2005: MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycLIT, CINAHL, the Cochrane Controlled Trials register and the Cochrane Collaboration Depression, Anxiety and Neurosis (CCDAN) trials registers.

Selection criteria: All controlled trials comparing counselling in primary care with other treatments for patients with psychological and psychosocial problems considered suitable for counselling. Trials completed before the end of June 2005 were included in the review.

Data collection and analysis: Data were extracted using a standardised data extraction sheet. Trials were rated for quality using CCDAN criteria, to assess the extent to which their design and conduct were likely to have prevented systematic error. Continuous measures of outcome were combined using standardised mean differences. An overall effect size was calculated for each outcome with 95% confidence intervals (CI). Continuous data from different measuring instruments were transformed into a standard effect size by dividing mean values by standard deviations. Sensitivity analyses were undertaken to test the robustness of the results. Economic analyses were summarised in narrative form.

Main results: Eight trials were included in the review. The analysis found significantly greater clinical effectiveness in the counselling group compared with usual care in the short-term (standardised mean difference -0.28, 95% CI -0.43 to -0.13, n = 772, 6 trials) but not the long-term (standardised mean difference -0.09, 95% CI -0.27 to 0.10, n = 475, 4 trials). Levels of satisfaction with counselling were high. There was some evidence that the overall costs of counselling and usual care were similar.

Authors' conclusions: Counselling is associated with modest improvement in short-term outcome compared to usual care, but provides no additional advantages in the long-term. Patients are satisfied with counselling. Although some types of health care utilisation may be reduced, counselling does not seem to reduce overall healthcare costs.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Counseling
  • Family Practice / economics
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Patient Satisfaction
  • Primary Health Care* / economics
  • Psychotherapy* / economics
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic