Phone or video call therapy improves health anxiety and saves money, study finds

A new study by mental health experts has found that easy-access, remotely-delivered psychological treatment can significantly reduce extreme health anxiety in people who repeatedly go to the doctor, or hospital emergency departments.

The researchers from the University of Nottingham’s Institute of Mental Health, Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre and NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) East Midlands* carried out a multi-centre trial to compare the effects of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) delivered by phone or video calling, to standard treatment via their GP and the mental health referral system.

The NIHR-funded study found that the randomly selected group of patients who received sessions of remote CBT via telephone or online video calling had markedly reduced health anxiety in the 12 months after the start of this treatment and the cost savings to the NHS were more than £1,000 per patient. The results, published in BMC Medicine, also show that general anxiety and depression in these patients improved over the same period, as did their overall health.

Professor of Psychiatry, Richard Morriss, from the University of Nottingham, NIHR CLAHRC East Midlands, NIHR MindTech MedTech Co-operative and NIHR Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre said: “This study has important implications for future clinical practice, we think. Health anxiety has been a growing problem for some time now and it means more and more people are seeking unscheduled on-the-day help or medical investigation from already over-stretched GPs and hospital emergency departments. Conversely, health anxiety can be in the form of a phobia which can prevent people from seeking medical attention leading to serious illness if symptoms are ignored.

“CBT is a well-tested and long-lasting effective treatment for severe health anxiety but despite this uptake is typically low because of stigma and negative experiences of mental health services. We found that people were more likely to engage in telephone or video calling therapy and it was easier for many people to access. It has huge potential, we think, to reduce these patients’ anxiety, and the knock-on effect will be less demand for emergency appointments in both GP surgeries and hospitals.”

Professor Kamlesh Khunti, Director of the NIHR CLAHRC East Midlands, said: “This study is an excellent example of how innovation, technology and smart thinking can come together to improve care and reduce costs in a pressurised NHS. At NIHR CLAHRC East Midlands we are tasked with ensuring the learning from research gets to the frontline of healthcare as swiftly as possible to ensure patients benefit from improved care. The evidence gained from this study can now pave the way for further adoption across the health service.”

Health anxiety manifests itself in people in many ways. It can be a constant worry about their health, frequent checking for signs of illness such as lumps, pain and symptoms such as a tight feeling in the chest or raised heart rate which can be caused by the anxiety itself. Often people will seek urgent medical attention to get reassurance or spend a lot of time online searching for health information. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been proven to deliver an effective treatment by teaching people techniques for breaking the cycle of anxious thoughts and behaviours that can dominate their lives.

In this new study, the researchers recruited 156 patients from emergency departments, walk-in centres, hospital outpatients’ clinics and GP practices offering same-day appointments across the Midlands. All of these patients had had two or more unscheduled medical consultations unrelated to any clinical pathology in the past 12 months and met the criteria for clinical health anxiety as measured by the Short Health Anxiety Inventory (SHAI).

Half were randomly selected to receive the usual standard care for their health anxiety and half were given the remote CBT via phone or online video calling. There were no clinically important differences at baseline assessment for any demographic or clinical characteristics between the two patient groups.

Between 6 and 12 CBT sessions were offered, delivered by a team of experienced CBT therapists using a video-conferencing tool called WebEx. Patients also received reminders about each session via text or email.

The study showed that both groups of patients experienced a reduction in health anxiety over the treatment period but those in the remote CBT group had a much larger reduction – 72% no longer experienced health anxiety during the treatment and this positive effect was maintained in nearly half the patients a year on.

The researchers conclude that targeted remote delivery of CBT is a feasible, clinically effective and cost-saving method of improving self-management in repeat users of unscheduled medical care with severe health anxiety, with whom the health services have previously struggled to engage.

The research drew on the expertise of the NIHR MindTech MedTech Co-operative and the Nottingham NIHR Biomedical Research Centre’s Mental Health and Technology Unit.

* The NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) East Midlands, led by Professor Kamlesh Khunti, brings together a collaboration of local providers and commissioners of NHS services, universities, industry and other relevant organisations. It leads applied health research across the region, translating research findings into improved outcomes for patients.

More information is available from Professor Richard Morriss, School of Medicine, University of Nottingham via email richard.morriss@nottingham.ac.uk or Emma Rayner/Emma Thorne in the Press Office on +44 (0)115 748 4413 or emma.rayner@nottingham.ac.uk

Emma.thorne@nottingham.ac.uk Media Relations Manager for the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences in the Press Office at the University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 951 5793

Notes to editors:

The Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre

The NIHR Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) is improving the health of millions of people with common diseases like asthma and arthritis. We drive innovation in experimental science and translate research into breakthrough treatments, innovative technologies and new medicines. Our world-leading research is in:

  • hearing
• gastrointestinal and liver disorders
• musculoskeletal diseases
• mental health and technology
• respiratory diseases
• Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) which supports all areas of research

The NIHR Nottingham BRC is a partnership between Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust and the University of Nottingham, supported by Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. It is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). For more information visit: www.nottinghambrc.nihr.ac.uk and follow @NottmBRC on Twitter.

The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage, consistently ranked among the world’s top 100. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our 44,000 students – Nottingham was named both Sports and International University of the Year in the 2019 Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, was awarded gold in the TEF 2017 and features in the top 20 of all three major UK rankings. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia – part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer, proud of our Athena SWAN silver award, and a key industry partner – locally and globally.

 The NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) East Midlands, is a partnership of the NHS, universities, patients and industry which sets out to improve patient outcomes by conducting research of local relevance and international quality. Led by Professor Kamlesh Khunti, brings together a collaboration of local providers and commissioners of NHSservices, universities, industry and other relevant organisations. It leads applied health research across the region, translating research findings into improved outcomes for patients. The programme, led by world-class researchers, was developed through extensive consultation with our partners and the public. For more information, visit http://www.clahrc-em.nihr.ac.uk.

The Institute of Mental Health is an innovative partnership between the University of Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. We seek to help transform the understanding and treatment of mental health by bridging the gap between campus and clinic.

Since our formation in 2006, we have established a track record of success, with achievements in our pioneering education provision and delivering innovative inter-disciplinary research that has a positive impact within the health, social care and criminal justice sectors. For further information, visit www.institutemh.org.uk

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation’s largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

  • Funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
  • Engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
  • Attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
  • Invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
  • Partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy

The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR commissions applied health research to benefit the poorest people in low- and middle-income countries, using Official Development Assistance funding.