Health anxiety is an under-recognised but frequent cause of distress that is potentially treatable, but there are few studies in secondary care.
To determine the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of a modified form of cognitive–behaviour therapy (CBT) for health anxiety (CBT-HA) compared with standard care in medical outpatients.
Randomised controlled trial.
Five general hospitals in London, Middlesex and Nottinghamshire.
A total of 444 patients aged 16–75 years seen in cardiology, endocrinology, gastroenterology, neurology and respiratory medicine clinics who scored ≥ 20 points on the Health Anxiety Inventory (HAI) and satisfied diagnostic requirements for hypochondriasis. Those with current psychiatric disorders were excluded, but those with concurrent medical illnesses were not.
Cognitive–behaviour therapy for health anxiety – between 4 and 10 1-hour sessions of CBT-HA from a health professional or psychologist trained in the treatment. Standard care was normal practice in primary and secondary care.
Main outcome measures
Primary – researchers masked to allocation assessed patients at baseline, 3, 6, 12, 24 months and 5 years. The primary outcome was change in the HAI score between baseline and 12 months. Main secondary outcomes – costs of care in the two groups after 24 and 60 months, change in health anxiety (HAI), generalised anxiety and depression [Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS)] scores, social functioning using the Social Functioning Questionnaire and quality of life using the EuroQol-5 Dimensions (EQ-5D), at 6, 12, 24 and 60 months, and deaths over 5 years.
Of the 28,991 patients screened over 21 months, 5769 had HAI scores of ≥ 20 points. Improvement in HAI scores at 3 months was significantly greater in the CBT-HA group (mean number of sessions = 6) than in the standard care, and this was maintained over the 5-year period (overall p < 0.0001), with no loss of efficacy between 2 and 5 years. Differences in the generalised anxiety (p = 0.0018) and depression scores (p = 0.0065) on the HADS were similar in both groups over the 5-year period. Gastroenterology and cardiology patients showed the greatest CBT gains. The outcomes for nurses were superior to those of other therapists. Deaths (n = 24) were similar in both groups; those in standard care died earlier than those in CBT-HA. Patients with mild personality disturbance and higher dependence levels had the best outcome with CBT-HA. Total costs were similar in both groups over the 5-year period (£12,590.58 for CBT-HA; £13,334.94 for standard care). CBT-HA was not cost-effective in terms of quality-adjusted life-years, as measured using the EQ-5D, but was cost-effective in terms of HAI outcomes, and offset the cost of treatment.
Many eligible patients were not randomised and the population treated may not be representative.
CBT-HA is a highly effective treatment for pathological health anxiety with lasting benefit over 5 years. It also improves generalised anxiety and depressive symptoms more than standard care. The presence of personality abnormality is not a bar to successful outcome. CBT-HA may also be cost-effective, but the high costs of concurrent medical illnesses obscure potential savings. This treatment deserves further research in medical settings.
This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment programme and will be published in full in Health Technology Assessment; Vol. 21, No. 50. See the NIHR Journals Library website for further project information.