The therapeutic relationship in e-therapy for mental health: a systematic review

J Med Internet Res. 2012 Aug 2;14(4):e110. doi: 10.2196/jmir.2084.


Background: E-therapy is defined as a licensed mental health care professional providing mental health services via e-mail, video conferencing, virtual reality technology, chat technology, or any combination of these. The use of e-therapy has been rapidly expanding in the last two decades, with growing evidence suggesting that the provision of mental health services over the Internet is both clinically efficacious and cost effective. Yet there are still unanswered concerns about e-therapy, including whether it is possible to develop a successful therapeutic relationship over the Internet in the absence of nonverbal cues.

Objective: Our objective in this study was to systematically review the therapeutic relationship in e-therapy.

Methods: We searched PubMed, PsycINFO, and CINAHL through August 2011. Information on study methods and results was abstracted independently by the authors using a standardized form.

Results: From the 840 reviewed studies, only 11 (1.3%) investigated the therapeutic relationship. The majority of the reviewed studies were focused on the therapeutic alliance-a central element of the therapeutic relationship. Although the results do not allow firm conclusions, they indicate that e-therapy seems to be at least equivalent to face-to-face therapy in terms of therapeutic alliance, and that there is a relationship between the therapeutic alliance and e-therapy outcome.

Conclusions: Overall, the current literature on the role of therapeutic relationship in e-therapy is scant, and much more research is needed to understand the therapeutic relationship in online environments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Electronic Mail
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Mental Health
  • Mental Health Services*
  • Telemedicine*
  • Therapy, Computer-Assisted
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Videoconferencing
  • Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy