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Health anxiety is common, disabling and costly due to patients’ extensive use of health care services. Internet-delivered treatment may overcome barriers of accessibility to specialized treatment. We aimed to evaluate the efficacy of internet-delivered acceptance and commitment therapy (iACT).
A randomized, controlled trial of iACT versus an internet-delivered discussion forum (iFORUM), performed in a Danish university hospital setting. Patients self-referred and underwent video-diagnostic assessment. Eligible patients (≥18 years) with health anxiety were randomized to 12 weeks of intervention. The randomization was blinded for the assessor. The primary outcome was between-group unadjusted mean differences in health anxiety symptoms measured by the Whiteley-7 Index (WI-7, range 0–100) from baseline to 6-month follow-up (6-MFU) using intention to treat and a linear mixed model. The study is registered at clinicaltrials.gov, number NCT02735434.
A total of 151 patients self-referred, and 101 patients were randomized to iACT (n = 53) or iFORUM (n = 48). A mean difference in change over time of 19.0 points [95% confidence interval (CI) 10.8–27.2, p < 0.001] was shown on the WI-7, and a large standardized effect size of d = 0.80 (95% CI 0.38–1.23) at 6-MFU. The number needed to treat was 2.8 (95% CI 1.8–6.1, p < 0.001), and twice as many patients in iACT were no longer clinical cases (35% v. 16%; risk ratio 2.17, 95% CI 1.00–4.70, p = 0.050). Adverse events were few and insignificant.
iACT for health anxiety led to sustained effects at 6-MFU. The study contributes to the development of easily accessible treatment options and deserves wider application.
Severe health anxiety is a chronic and costly disorder if untreated. Patient self-referral may lower barriers to treatment and decrease diagnostic delay.
This study evaluated the accuracy of self-referral for severe health anxiety and compared characteristics of patients self-referred to internet-delivered treatment with patients referred by a clinician to face-to-face treatment.
Two trials in the same clinic employed different referral methods for health anxiety, namely self-referral and clinician-referral (trial registration: clinicaltrials.gov: NCT01158430 and NCT02735434). The trials were conducted at different time points but with largely comparable eligibility criteria. The accuracy of the recruitment methods was compared by looking at the number of eligible patients in the two trials. Patients completed a baseline questionnaire and subsequently underwent a diagnostic interview by experienced clinicians. Mean differences in self-report and clinical data explored between-group demographic and clinical characteristics.
In total, 101/151 (67%) self-referred patients were eligible compared with 126/254 (50%) clinician-referred patients (P = 0.001). Self-referred patients were 3.4 years older (P = 0.008) and had a somewhat higher educational level (P = 0.030). Patients who self-referred reported significantly higher levels of health anxiety, emotional distress and somatic symptoms compared with clinician-referred patients. Yet, they had less clinician-assessed comorbid anxiety disorders (P<0.001) and better physical health-related quality of life (P<0.001) suggesting a more distinct symptom profile.
Self-referral was found to be an accurate method to recruit highly relevant patients with treatment-demanding health anxiety. Thus, both self-referral and clinician-referral seem feasible and valid referral methods, but they may recruit patients with slightly different characteristics.
Declaration of interest
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