Internet-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Stepped Care for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Randomized Noninferiority Trial

J Med Internet Res. 2019 Mar 14;21(3):e11276. doi: 10.2196/11276.


Background: Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (I-CBT) leads to a reduction of fatigue severity and disability in adults with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). However, not all patients profit and it remains unclear how I-CBT is best embedded in the care of CFS patients.

Objective: This study aimed to compare the efficacy of stepped care, using therapist-assisted I-CBT, followed by face-to-face (f2f) cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) when needed, with f2f CBT (treatment as usual [TAU]) on fatigue severity. The secondary aim was to investigate treatment efficiency.

Methods: A total of 363 CFS patients were randomized to 1 of the 3 treatment arms (n=121). There were 2 stepped care conditions that differed in the therapists' feedback during I-CBT: prescheduled or on-demand. When still severely fatigued or disabled after I-CBT, the patients were offered f2f CBT. Noninferiority of both stepped care conditions to TAU was tested using analysis of covariance. The primary outcome was fatigue severity (Checklist Individual Strength). Disabilities (Sickness Impact Profile -8), physical functioning (Medical Outcomes Survey Short Form-36), psychological distress (Symptom Checklist-90), and proportion of patients with clinically significant improvement in fatigue were the secondary outcomes. The amount of invested therapist time was compared between stepped care and TAU. Exploratory comparisons were made between the stepped care conditions of invested therapist time and proportion of patients who continued with f2f CBT.

Results: Noninferiority was indicated, as the upper boundary of the one-sided 98.75% CI of the difference in the change in fatigue severity between both forms of stepped care and TAU were below the noninferiority margin of 5.2 (4.25 and 3.81, respectively). The between-group differences on the secondary outcomes were also not significant (P=.11 to P=.79). Both stepped care formats required less therapist time than TAU (median 8 hours, 9 minutes and 7 hours, 25 minutes in stepped care vs 12 hours in TAU; P<.001). The difference in therapist time between both stepped care formats was not significant. Approximately half of the patients meeting step-up criteria for f2f CBT after I-CBT did not continue.

Conclusions: Stepped care, including I-CBT followed by f2f CBT when indicated, is noninferior to TAU of f2f CBT and requires less therapist time. I-CBT for CFS can be used as a first step in stepped care.

Trial registration: Nederlands Trial Register NTR4809; (Archived by WebCite at

Keywords: chronic fatigue syndrome; cognitive behavioral therapy; eHealth; randomized controlled trial.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods*
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Male
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Telemedicine / methods*
  • Treatment Outcome