In my last blog post, I described the end-of-treatment outcomes of my former patients (N = 30) with Anorexia Nervosa (AN). In sum, 57% of patients completed treatment (n=17) and 43% of patients (n = 13) did not complete treatment. The former group is referred to as “treatment completers” and the latter as “treatment non-completers.”
As expected, end-of-treatment results differed dramatically between the two groups. By the end of treatment, 94% percent of treatment completers had achieved full remission and 6% (n = 1) had achieved physical remission. In contrast, none of the treatment non-completers achieved remission, although 46% of them made significant progress (n = 6).
Bear in mind that I set the bar very high for my patients in terms of defining remission. In most published studies of AN treatment outcome, the patients whom I categorized as having made significant progress would be categorized as “recovered” or “in remission.” If I used the (completely inadequate) definitions of remission that other studies have used, a full 77% of my sample would have completed treatment and made a full recovery. But I digress.
These data clearly demonstrate that my approach to treating AN is effective. Patients with AN who have completed treatment with me always achieved physical remission and almost always achieved psychological and behavioral remission as well.
The 43% attrition rate is disheartening, given that patients are likely to achieve remission if they remain in treatment long enough. Attrition is a major problem in AN treatment in general, and in AN treatment for adults in particular. The validity of most AN treatment outcome studies is compromised by the high rates of attrition. It is not surprising that many adults discontinue AN treatment prematurely, given that treatment is very difficult, anxiety provoking, and lengthy.
This raises the question of what is “long enough” in terms of AN treatment? In my opinion, “long enough” is as long as it takes to bring the patient to full remission, which varies considerably based on individual differences. Among the treatment completers, the length of time to full remission ranged from 2 months to 4 years, with a mean of 17 months. The number of sessions attended by treatment completers ranged from 3 – 82, with a mean of 28 sessions. There were a handful of the young patients who achieved full remission in 12 sessions or less, although this was not the norm.
The rates of treatment completion versus non-completion in my sample beg the question of how these two groups differed. What was it that made treatment completers stick it out until the end, while the treatment non-completers either quit or regressed to the point that they required more intensive treatment? Cause and effect cannot be determined from this type of study. However, a careful examination of the similarities and differences between treatment completers and non-completers may yield useful information and hypotheses which can be tested in future studies.
The patients who completed treatment and reached remission differed in several important ways from those who discontinued treatment prematurely.
Variables That Had a Significant Impact on Treatment Outcome:
1.) Type of Treatment
In my practice, all children and adolescents under age 18 with AN receive FBT (Family-Based Treatment, also known as the Maudsley Method). Some adolescents also receive individual therapy as an adjunct to FBT after weight restoration. Some children and adolescents transition to individual therapy with me after FBT is complete; this may be the case for those who have comorbid disorders or other ongoing issues. Patients over 18 with AN are strongly encouraged to do FBT whenever appropriate, although it is not always possible for logistical reasons, and some young adults are staunchly opposed to it. In my sample, 66.7% of patients (n = 20) received FBT alone, 16.7% (n = 5) received FBT plus individual therapy, and 16.7% (n = 5) received individual therapy alone.
In my sample, all of the patients who received individual therapy alone were 20 or older. Six of the 11 young adults in my sample (n = 55%) participated in FBT, either alone or in conjunction with individual therapy. All of the patients under age 18 received FBT, and two of these patients also received individual therapy.
One-hundred percent of treatment completers (n = 17) received FBT, either by itself (n = 15) or in conjunction with individual therapy (n = 2). In other words, all patients who achieved remission did so through FBT. One-hundred percent of the patients who did individual therapy alone (n = 5) ended treatment prematurely, either because they moved (n = 2), they quit (n = 2), or I referred them to a higher level of care (n = 1). In other words, individual therapy by itself never resulted in treatment completion or remission.
2.) Subtype of AN
This sample contained 5 patients with the Binge-Purge subtype of AN (AN – BP) and 25 patients with the Restricting subtype of AN (AN – R). One-hundred percent of treatment completers had a diagnosis of AN-R. None of the AN-BP patients completed treatment.
Among the AN-BP patients, 2 were referred to higher levels of care after regressing during treatment with me. One patient moved to another state after making some progress in treatment with me. Two patients quit treatment prematurely after making significant progress with me.
The patients in my sample with AN-BP were more likely to have a history of impulsivity, self-injury, and suicidal gestures compared to those with AN-R. I hypothesize that this cluster of symptoms made these patients more difficult for me to treat effectively as an outpatient solo practitioner, and more likely to benefit from a more structured, comprehensive treatment approach such as day treatment or residential treatment.
On average, those who completed treatment and achieved remission were significantly younger at intake than those who did not complete treatment (p <.01). Treatment completers ranged in age from 10 – 24 at intake, with a median age of 14. Treatment non-completers ranged in age from 10 – 37, with a median age of 20. However, it is important to note that there was a broad range of ages in both groups, with some young adults achieving full remission and some children and adolescents discontinuing treatment prematurely.
4.) Fee Paid for Services
I believe that neither finances nor insurance issues should prevent people from accessing high-quality healthcare services. Therefore, I do not participate on any insurance panels. I am flexible with my fees and I work on a sliding scale based on a patient's ability to pay. If a family’s financial status changes during the course of treatment, I will change my fee for them accordingly. I work with many patients for very low hourly fees. Thus, I can only assume that the patients who discontinued treatment prematurely did not do so for financial reasons.
Among the patients in this AN sample, 87% (n = 26) paid my full fee and 13% (n = 4) paid a reduced rate. The rate of reduced-pay patients in this sample is significantly lower than in my other diagnostic groups. I hypothesize that this may be due to the fact that the majority of patients in this sample received family-based treatment and had at least one parent who was a working professional, or who at least was employed full-time. In contrast, many of my patients with other diagnoses were college students supporting themselves, who were therefore eligible for a low fee.
In this sample of AN patients, those who paid a reduced rate were significantly less likely to complete treatment compared to those who paid a full rate. Only 25% of reduced fee patients (n = 1) completed treatment, versus 62% of full fee patients (n = 16). It is unclear why reduced rate patients were less likely to complete treatment. However, the reduced rate patients differed from the full rate patients in several important ways. First, and most obviously, they had lower incomes, and likely dealt with the host of stressors that accompany being of lower socio-economic status. Second, they were all over the age of 18, which statistically reduces their likelihood of full recovery. Third, they were more likely to receive individual therapy than the full-rate patients. All of the low-rate patients received individual therapy, either alone (n = 2) or in combination with FBT (n = 2).
Observing my patients with other diagnoses, I have noticed that those who pay full rate are much more likely to attend all of their sessions and to complete treatment, whereas those who pay lower rates are more likely to cancel sessions, no-show for sessions, and drop out prematurely. While I’m sure that the reasons for these differences are complex, I can’t help but wonder if people who pay more for something tend to value it more and take it more seriously.
Variables That Had a Minor Impact on Treatment Outcome:
1.) Length of illness before intake.
Among treatment completers, length of illness before intake ranged from 3 months to 13 years (mean = 27 months). Amongst treatment non-completers, length of illness before intake ranged from 3 months to 21 years (mean = 67 months). However, this difference was not statistically significant (t = 1.63; p = 0.11).
2.) Use of Medication During Treatment
Individuals who took psychotropic medication during treatment with me were somewhat more likely to complete treatment and achieve remission. Fifty-nine percent of treatment completers (n = 10) took medication during treatment, compared with 38% of treatment non-completers (n = 5).
This sample of 30 patients was comprised of 60% White Non-Hispanic individuals (n = 18) and 40% White Hispanic Individuals (n = 12). These percentages are roughly similar to the ethnic makeup of Coral Gables, Florida, the Miami Suburb in which my office is located. The treatment completers group was comprised of 71% White Non-Hispanic individuals (n = 12) and 29% White Hispanic individuals (n = 5). The treatment non-completers group included 46% White Non-Hispanics (n = 6) and 54% White Hispanics (n = 7). Therefore, White Non-Hispanics were slightly more likely to complete treatment and achieve full recovery than White Hispanics.
4.) History of intensive eating disorder treatment.
History of residential, day treatment, or intensive outpatient treatment had a minor impact on treatment outcome. Twelve percent of treatment completers (n = 2) and 23% of treatment non-completers (n = 3) had a history of residential eating disorders treatment prior to beginning treatment with me. Twenty-four percent of treatment completers (n = 4) and 31% of treatment non-completers had a history of partial hospitalization, day treatment, or intensive outpatient eating disorder treatment.
Variables that Had No Impact on Treatment Outcome:
1.) Comorbid disorders
The presence of comorbid disorders did not differ significantly between the two groups. Fifty-three percent of treatment completers (n = 9) had a comorbid diagnosis, as did 46% of treatment non-completers.
Given that only 7% of the sample was male (n = 2), I cannot draw any conclusions about gender differences in treatment response. Incidentally, both of the males in my sample achieved full recovery.
3.) Hospitalization before treatment.
Being hospitalized for AN or a related psychiatric issue prior to beginning treatment with me did not have a significant impact on treatment outcome. Thirty-five percent of treatment completers (n = 6) had been hospitalized at least one prior to beginning treatment with me, as had 31% percent of treatment non-completers (n = 4).
4.) Hospitalization during treatment.
The need for hospitalization during the course of treatment with me did not have a significant impact on treatment outcome. Eighteen percent of treatment completers (n = 3) needed to be hospitalized during the course of their treatment, compared with 15% (n = 2) of treatment non-completers.
These data, taken together, suggest that a patient with AN-R who enters treatment with me and receives FBT is very likely to achieve full remission within 28 sessions over the course of 17 months, regardless of gender, comorbid diagnosis, or history of hospitalization. A patient under age 18 has a greater likelihood of achieving full remission, although a patient over 18 is also likely to achieve full remission, provided that he or she is treated with FBT.
Please bear in mind that these results are specific to my practice and my patients. These data are not intended to be generalized to other clinicians or other patient populations.