Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy for patients with chronic somatic conditions: a meta-analytic review

J Med Internet Res. 2014 Mar 27;16(3):e88. doi: 10.2196/jmir.2777.


Background: Patients with chronic somatic conditions face unique challenges accessing mental health care outside of their homes due to symptoms and physical limitations. Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) has shown to be effective for various psychological conditions. The increasing number of recent trials need to be systematically evaluated and quantitatively analyzed to determine whether ICBT is also effective for chronic somatic conditions and to gain insight into the types of problems that could be targeted.

Objective: Our goal was to describe and evaluate the effectiveness of guided ICBT interventions for chronic somatic conditions on general psychological outcomes, disease-related physical outcomes, and disease-related impact on daily life outcomes. The role of treatment length was also examined.

Methods: PubMed, PsycINFO, and Embase were searched from inception until February 2012, by combining search terms indicative of effect studies, Internet, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Studies were included if they fulfilled the following six criteria: (1) randomized controlled trial, (2) Internet-based interventions, (3) based on cognitive behavioral therapy, (4) therapist-guided, (5) adult (≥18 years old) patients with an existing chronic somatic condition, and (6) published in English. 23 randomized controlled trials of guided ICBT were selected by 2 independent raters after reviewing 4848 abstracts. Demographic, clinical, and methodological variables were extracted. Standardized mean differences were calculated between intervention and control conditions for each outcome and pooled using random effects models when appropriate.

Results: Guided ICBT was shown to improve all outcome categories with small effect sizes for generic psychological outcomes (effect size range 0.17-0.21) and occasionally larger effects for disease-specific physical outcomes (effect size range 0.07 to 1.19) and disease-related impact outcomes (effect size range 0.17-1.11). Interventions with a longer treatment duration (>6 weeks) led to more consistent effects on depression.

Conclusions: Guided ICBT appears to be a promising and effective treatment for chronic somatic conditions to improve psychological and physical functioning and disease-related impact. The most consistent improvements were found for disease-specific outcomes, which supports the possible relevance of tailoring interventions to specific patient groups. Explorative analyses revealed that longer treatment length holds the promise of larger treatment effects for the specific outcome of depression. While the current meta-analysis focused on several chronic somatic conditions, future meta-analyses for separate chronic somatic conditions can further consolidate these results, also in terms of cost-effectiveness.

Keywords: cognitive behavior therapy; eHealth; internet; intervention; meta-analysis; self-management.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety / therapy
  • Chronic Disease / psychology*
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods*
  • Depression / therapy
  • Humans
  • Internet*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Telemedicine*