Background: The COVID-19 pandemic has created an epidemic of distress-related mental disorders such as depression, while simultaneously necessitating a shift to virtual domains of mental health care; yet, the evidence to support the use of virtual interventions is unclear.
Objective: The purpose of this study was to evaluate the efficacy of virtual interventions for depressive disorders by addressing three key questions: (1) Does virtual intervention provide better outcomes than no treatment or other control conditions (ie, waitlist, treatment as usual [TAU], or attention control)? (2) Does in-person intervention provide better outcomes than virtual intervention? (3) Does one type of virtual intervention provide better outcomes than another?
Methods: We searched the PubMed, EMBASE, and PsycINFO databases for trials published from January 1, 2010, to October 30, 2021. We included randomized controlled trials of adults with depressive disorders that tested a virtual intervention and used a validated depression measure. Primary outcomes were defined as remission (ie, no longer meeting the clinical cutoff for depression), response (ie, a clinically significant reduction in depressive symptoms), and depression severity at posttreatment. Two researchers independently selected studies and extracted data using PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) guidelines. Risk of bias was evaluated based on Agency for Healthcare and Research Quality guidelines. We calculated odds ratios (ORs) for binary outcomes and standardized mean differences (SMDs) for continuous outcomes.
Results: We identified 3797 references, 24 of which were eligible. Compared with waitlist, virtual intervention had higher odds of remission (OR 10.30, 95% CI 5.70-18.60; N=619 patients) and lower posttreatment symptom severity (SMD 0.81, 95% CI 0.52-1.10; N=1071). Compared with TAU and virtual attention control conditions, virtual intervention had higher odds of remission (OR 2.27, 95% CI 1.10-3.35; N=512) and lower posttreatment symptom severity (SMD 0.25, 95% CI 0.09-0.42; N=573). In-person intervention outcomes were not significantly different from virtual intervention outcomes (eg, remission OR 0.84, CI 0.51-1.37; N=789). No eligible studies directly compared one active virtual intervention to another.
Conclusions: Virtual interventions were efficacious compared with control conditions, including waitlist control, TAU, and attention control. Although the number of studies was relatively small, the strength of evidence was moderate that in-person interventions did not yield significantly better outcomes than virtual interventions for depressive disorders.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lifetime prevalence of major depressive disorder (MDD) was over 20% for adults in the United States , and the majority (71%) of cases were untreated [ ]. Compared with the prepandemic period, depressive symptoms became over three times more prevalent [ ] during the pandemic, with up to 48% of citizens of developed nations reporting clinically significant depression [ ]. At the same time, pandemic constraints critically challenged the provision of mental health services. Cost-effective, scalable, affordable, and accessible interventions were urgently needed, and the use of virtual care expanded quickly [ ]. However, the efficacy of modern virtual interventions had not been systematically examined. Thus, the aim of this systematic review and meta-analysis was to fill this gap to inform clinical, administrative, and policy decision-making.
Prior systematic reviews and meta-analyses examined the evidence supporting the efficacy of computerized or virtual cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for MDD or depressive symptoms compared with no treatment or treatment as usual (TAU) (ie, referring participants to primary care providers or other health clinics in their local community to manage their depressive symptoms). Moreover, meta-analyses  and umbrella summaries across meta-analyses [ ] have suggested that virtual treatment works at least as well as in-person treatment for those with depressive symptoms. Prior meta-analyses of virtual treatments for adults included studies conducted before 2016, and many included adults with depressive symptoms or various depression and anxiety diagnoses [ , - ]. Since 2016, individual studies of virtual interventions have proliferated, expanding beyond CBT [ , ], and increased in rigor. As a result, a comparison of modern virtual interventions with not only waitlist or TAU but also with face-to-face interventions [ , ] for adults with MDD is feasible and warranted given that face-to-face psychotherapy had become impractical and, in certain settings, impossible.
Information evaluating whether virtual care is an efficacious alternative to individual, face-to-face intervention with a therapist is needed for clinicians, health systems, payers, and policymakers. In addition, data to guide decisions about which existing virtual interventions are most efficacious for treating depressive disorder are lacking. In the absence of such data, common assumptions about the superiority of in-person treatment have guided clinical decisions and policies regarding depression treatment.
The purpose of this systematic review was to answer three clinically relevant key questions (KQs) for depressive disorders (ie, MDD, persistent depressive disorder, or dysthymia) based on studies conducted in the last 10 years.
KQ1: Does virtual intervention provide better clinical outcomes than no treatment, TAU, or attention control, defined as a rigorous control condition that simulates active treatment without the active ingredient (ie, does it work)?
KQ2: Does in-person intervention provide better outcomes than virtual intervention (ie, is in-person intervention better)?
KQ3: Does one type of virtual intervention provide better outcomes than another type of virtual intervention (ie, what works best)?
The KQs were structured based on Agency for Healthcare and Research Quality (AHRQ) guidance for decision-making related to best practices in treatment .
We used the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions methods  and AHRQ guidance for grading the strength of evidence [ ]. The protocol for this systematic review and meta-analysis is published in the Open Science Framework [ ]. Reporting conforms to the PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) guidelines [ ].
Search Strategy and Selection Criteria
For this systematic review and meta-analysis, we searched the PubMed, EMBASE, and PsycINFO databases for trials published from January 1, 2010, to October 30, 2021, for MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) and major headings listed in Table A1 of. Relevant systematic reviews and meta-analyses were used to identify additional existing literature, and ClinicalTrials.gov was searched to identify unpublished trials.
The study criteria were selected to inform clinical decision-making and policy in the United States. Eligible studies were randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of adults with a clinical diagnosis of MDD, dysthymic disorder, or persistent depressive disorder that tested a virtual psychological intervention for depression in at least one study arm, reported an outcome using a validated depression measure (see Table A2 of), and were conducted in countries with a very high human development index (see Table 3 of for a list of eligible countries, [ ]). To ensure generalizability of the results to individuals with major depression with access to current technology in the United States, we included studies conducted in similarly highly developed nations. To ensure comparability across studies, we included studies with standard, validated measures of depression, both self-reported and clinician-rated. Because evidence-based treatments for depression differ for children and adults, we excluded studies of children from this review.
References identified through searches were imported into Covidence Systematic Review software (Veritas Health Innovation, Melbourne, Australia). Two reviewers independently screened the titles and abstracts of all references according to the inclusion and exclusion criteria. Studies included by either reviewer were retrieved for full-text screening by two independent reviewers for eligibility. Discrepancies between reviewers were resolved through discussions and consensus.
One author extracted summary data from the included trials into standardized forms, and a second senior author (BNG, CES, or LL) checked the data for accuracy. Two authors independently rated the risk of bias across nine domains (see Table A4 in) using the Cochrane Risk of Bias tool for RCTs [ ] modified for psychotherapy outcome research [ ]. Disagreements were resolved by discussion and consensus. Trials with a high risk of bias were excluded, although sensitivity analyses were performed to determine the impact on the results (see Figure A1 in ).
Data Synthesis and Analysis
Primary outcomes were rates of remission (ie, no longer meeting the clinical cutoff for depression), rates of response (ie, a clinically significant reduction in depressive symptoms), and depression severity at posttreatment. We calculated odds ratios (ORs) with 95% CIs for remission and response, and calculated standardized mean differences (SMDs, Cohen d) with 95% CIs for differences in symptom severity between groups. Forest plots were generated for all outcomes with sufficient data.
To determine the appropriateness of quantitative analyses, the senior authors (BNG, CES, LL, AEB) assessed the clinical and methodological heterogeneity of studies under consideration . We performed meta-analyses using the meta package (v 4.19-2) in R version 3.6.1 [ ] when two or more trials reported data on outcomes of interest with low levels of heterogeneity. Effect sizes were weighted by their inverse variance. To account for variability in the different study populations, we used random-effects models to estimate pooled or comparative effects with three or more studies. However, because the effect estimates from smaller studies (which are generally more prone to bias) are more influential in random-effects models, we used fixed-effects models in analyses with fewer than three studies to ensure that a small study would not overinfluence the estimates [ ].
Statistical heterogeneity in effects between studies included in each meta-analysis was assessed by calculating the χ2 statistic (Q) and the I2 statistic, assessing the proportion of variation in study estimates due to heterogeneity rather than sampling error . In instances of high heterogeneity, we performed sensitivity analyses to determine the extent to which excluding dissimilar studies changed the overall effect estimates. Most studies had only two study arms (ie, intervention and control); however, two studies had two intervention arms in addition to a waitlist control arm [ , ]. A two-level model was used if there was no significant difference between the three-level model and a two-level model based on a likelihood ratio test [ ]. Using AHRQ guidelines [ ], we assessed the overall strength of evidence (SOE) considering four factors: directness, consistency, precision, and bias. SOE was assessed by one author (LL) and checked for consensus with two other authors (BNG and CES). We began each SOE assessment with a rating of high and downgraded for factors that reduced the level of confidence. The resulting definitions of high, moderate, low, and insufficient SOE grades are summarized in Table A5 of .
Characteristics of Included Studies
Database and manual searching yielded 3797 citations for consideration (), 24 of which met the criteria for inclusion in this review. The characteristics of participants included in each study are summarized in . Participants in all of the included trials were diagnosed with MDD, and those with severe psychiatric comorbidities such as any psychotic disorder or active substance use disorder, bipolar disorder, or acute risk of suicidality were excluded.
|Referencea||MDDb diagnostic measurec||Average MDD severity at baseline||Intervention condition||Comparison condition||Age (years), mean (SD)||Women, n (%)||Some colleged, n (%)|
|Participants, n||Completed posttreatment assessment, n (%)||Participants, n||Completed posttreatment assessment, n (%)|
|KQe1a (virtual vs waitlist)|
|Berger et al ||MINIf||Moderate||25||22 (88)||26||22 (85)||39 (14)||36 (70)||32 (63)|
|Berger et al ||MINI||Moderate||25||25 (100)||26||22 (85)||39 (14)||36 (70)||32 (63)|
|Carlbring et al ||SCIDg||Moderate||40||40 (100)||40||38 (95)||44 (14)||66 (83)||61 (76)|
|Chan et al ||Clinical interview||Moderate||167||109 (65)||153||144 (94)||27 (7)||234 (73)||288 (90)|
|Johansson et al ||SCID||Moderate||27||25 (91)||27||27 (100)||39 (NRh)||31 (57)||23 (42)|
|Kenter et al ||CIDIi||Moderate||136||96 (69)||133||89 (67)||38 (11)||145 (54)||110 (41)|
|Smith et al ||MINI||Moderate||61||36 (59)||68||55 (81)||40 (13)||106 (82)||89 (69)|
|Vernmark et al ||SCID||Moderate||30||29 (97)||29||29 (100)||37 (13)||40 (68)||48 (82)|
|Vernmark et al ||SCID||Moderate||29||27 (93)||29||29 (100)||37 (13)||39 (68)||48 (82)|
|KQ1b (virtual vs TAUj)|
|Dennis et al k||SCID||Moderate||120||104 (87)||121||100 (83)||31 (6)||241 (100)||181 (75)|
|Forsell et al ||SCID||Moderate||22||21 (95)||20||18 (90)||30 (5)||42 (100)||30 (71)|
|Hallgren et al ||MINI||Moderate||317||273 (86)||312||256 (82)||43 (12)||472 (75)||390 (62)|
|Löbner et al ||ICD-10l||Mild to moderate||320||259 (81)||327||307 (94)||44 (13)||446 (69)||NR|
|Moreno et al ||MINI||Moderate||80||74 (93)||87||85 (98)||44 (12)||149 (89)||28 (17)|
|Pfeiffer et al ||Medical record||Moderate||167||109 (65)||163||129 (79)||52 (15)||66 (20)||281 (85)|
|Raevuori et al ||ICD||Moderate||63||57 (90)||61||51 (84)||25 (NR)||90 (73)||NR|
|Wozney et al k||SCID||Moderate to severe||32||26 (81)||30||24 (80)||29 (5)||62 (100)||14 (22)|
|KQ1c (virtual vs attention control)|
|Flygare et al ||SCID||Moderate||48||36 (74)||14||11 (76)||45 (12)||47 (76)||NR|
|Johansson et al m||MINI||Moderate||46||42 (91)||46||46 (100)||47 (14)||64 (70)||77 (84)|
|Ly et al m||MINI||Moderate||40||36 (90)||41||36 (88)||36 (11)||57 (70)||51 (63)|
|Oehler et al ||MINI||Mild to moderate||173||125 (72)||174||127 (73)||42 (12)||274 (79)||229 (66)|
|Reins et al ||SCID||Moderate||65||49 (75)||66||53 (80)||42 (11)||100 (76)||94 (72)|
|KQ2 (in-person vs virtual)|
|Andersson et al ||SCID||Moderate||36||33 (92)||33||32 (97)||42 (14)||54 (78)||NR|
|Egede et al ||SCID||Moderate||121||106 (88)||120||108 (90)||64 (5)||5 (2)||NR|
|Mohr et al ||HAMDn||Moderate||162||141 (87)||163||151 (93)||NR (NR)||NR||NR|
|Thase et al ||SCID||Moderate||77||67 (87)||77||66 (86)||46 (14)||102 (66)||152 (99)|
aEach row represents an intervention arm. Some references are listed more than once because they provided data from multiple intervention arms.
bMDD: major depressive disorder.
cParticipants of all trials were diagnosed with MDD.
dSome college means any self-reported level of educational attainment greater than high school or equivalent.
eKQ: key question.
fMINI: Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview.
gSCID: Structured Clinical Interview for Axis-I Disorders.
hNR: not reported.
iCIDI: Composite International Diagnostic Interview.
jTAU: treatment as usual.
kAll participants were diagnosed with MDD with perinatal onset.
lICD-10: International Classification of Diseases, 10th revision.
mIncluded in systematic review but excluded from meta-analysis due to differences in methods from other studies.
nHAMD: Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression.
The characteristics of each trial, including the length of intervention, treatment modality and mode, provider type, and comparison condition, are summarized in.
Risk of bias assessments across the nine individual domains and an overall summary is presented for each study in Table A4 of; detailed information on intervention outcomes is presented in - ; and SOE ratings alongside a summary of results are presented in .
|Referencea||Length of intervention (weeks)||Intervention condition||Comparison condition|
|KQb1a (virtual vs waitlist)|
|Berger et al ||10||CBTc (Deprexis)||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist||Waitlist||NAd||None|
|Berger et al ||10||CBT (Deprexis)||Online intervention, unguided||None||Waitlist||NA||None|
|Carlbring et al ||7||ACTe/BAf||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist||Waitlist||NA||None|
|Chan et al ||6||CBT-I||Smartphone intervention, unguided||None||Waitlist||NA||None|
|Johansson et al ||8||CBT||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist||Waitlist||NA||None|
|Kenter et al ||8||Problem-solving therapy||Online intervention, guided||Student||Waitlist||NA||None|
|Smith et al ||12||CBT||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist||Waitlist||NA||None|
|Vernmark et al ||8||CBT||Individualized email therapy||Mental health specialist||Waitlist||NA||None|
|Vernmark et al ||8||CBT||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist||Waitlist||NA||None|
|KQ1b (virtual vs TAUg)|
|Dennis et al ||12||IPTh||Telehealth (telephone)||Nurses||TAU||In-person||Nurse|
|Forsell et al ||10||CBT||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist||TAU||In-person||OBGYNi|
|Hallgren et al ||12||CBT||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist||TAU||In-person||PCPj|
|Löbner et al ||6||CBT (Moodgym)+TAU||Online intervention, self-guided||PCP||TAU||In-person||PCP|
|Moreno et al ||24||Supportive therapy+medication||Telehealth (video)||Mental health specialist||TAU||In-person||PCP|
|Pfeiffer et al ||12||CBT (Beating the Blues)||Online intervention, guided+TAU||Peer support specialist||TAU+depression workbook||In-person||VAk physician|
|Raevuori et al ||8||CBT (Meru Health Program)||Smartphone intervention, guided||Mental health specialist||TAU||In-person||Mental health specialist|
|Wozney et al ||24||CBT (MOM: Managing Our Mood)||Handbook and telephone coaching||Trained coach||TAU||In-person||PCP|
|KQ1c (virtual vs attention control)|
|Flygare et al ||8||CBT||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist||Psychoedl||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist|
|Johansson et al m||10||Psychodynamic therapy||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist||Psychoed||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist|
|Ly et al m||8||BA||Smartphone, guided||Mental health specialist||Mindfulness||Smartphone, guided||Mental health specialist|
|Oehler et al ||6||CBT (iFight Depression)||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist||Progressive muscle relaxation||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist|
|Reins et al ||6||CBT (GET.ON Mood Enhancer)||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist||Psychoed||Online intervention, unguided||None|
|KQ2 (in-person vs virtual)|
|Andersson et al ||8||CBT||In-person group,8 sessions (60 min)||Mental health specialist||CBT||Online intervention, guided||Mental health specialist|
|Egede et al ||8||BA||In-person, 8 sessions (60 min)||Mental health specialist||BA||Telemedicine (video), 8 sessions (60 min)||Mental health specialist|
|Mohr et al ||18||CBT||In-person, 18 sessions (45 min)||Mental health specialist||CBT||Telemedicine (telephone), 18 sessions (45 min)||Mental health specialist|
|Thase et al ||20||CBT||In-person, 20 sessions (50 min)||Mental health specialist||CBT (Good Days Ahead)||Online intervention, guided (Good Days Ahead)||Mental health specialist|
aEach row represents an intervention arm. Some references are listed more than once because they provided data from multiple intervention arms.
bKQ: key question.
cCBT: cognitive behavioral therapy.
dNA: not applicable.
eACT: acceptance and commitment therapy.
fBA: behavioral activation.
gTAU: treatment as usual.
hIPT: interpersonal therapy.
jPCP: primary care provider.
kVA: Veteran’s Administration.
mIncluded in systematic review but excluded from meta-analysis due to differences in methods from other studies.
|Outcome||Study design, duration, sample size (N), eventsa (n)||Effect size (95% CI)||Factors that affect the strength of evidence||Overall evidence strength and direction of effect||Findings|
|KQ1a (virtual vs waitlist)|
|Remission||RCTb (4 trials), 7-10 weeks, N=564, n=118 enrolled; N=619, n=126 analyzed due to 2 trials each having two intervention arms comparing to one control group||ORc 10.30 (5.70 to 18.60)||Low ROBd, imprecise estimatee but high effect (increase), direct consistent (I2= 0%)||High; virtual intervention>waitlist||The SOEf is high that virtual interventions have 10 times higher odds of remission than waitlist|
|Response||RCT (2 trials), 10-12 weeks, N=195, n=74 enrolled; N=221, n=78 analyzed due to 1 trial having two intervention arms comparing to the same control group||OR 3.57 (0.86 to 14.78)||1 Low, 1 moderate ROB (decrease),imprecise estimate (decrease), direct inconsistentg (I2=79.1%) (decrease)||Low; no statistically significant difference||The SOE is low that there are no substantial differences in response between virtual interventions and waitlist|
|Depression severity||RCT (7 trials), 7-12 weeks, N=1180, n=1180 enrolled; N=1071, n=1071 analyzed due to 2 trials each having two intervention arms comparing to one control group||SMDh 0.81 (0.52 to 1.10)||4 Low, 3 moderate ROB; precise estimate; direct inconsistent (I2=77.8%) (decrease)||Moderate; virtual intervention>waitlist||The SOE is moderate that virtual interventions have greater reduction in depression severity compared with waitlist|
|KQ1b (virtual vs TAUi)|
|Remission||RCT (4 trials), 10-24 weeks; N=512, n=285||OR 2.27 (1.54 to 3.35)||Low ROB; imprecise estimate (decrease); direct consistent (I2=0%)||Moderate; virtual intervention>TAU||The SOE is moderate that virtual interventions have 2 times higher odds of remission than TAU|
|Response||RCT (3 trials), 10-24 weeks; N=450, n=238||OR 2.95 (1.51 to 5.75)||Low ROB; imprecise estimate (decrease); direct consistent (I2= 58.0%)||Moderate; virtual intervention>TAU||The SOE is moderate that virtual interventions have 3 times higher odds of response than TAU|
|Depression severity||RCT (7 trials), 8-24 weeks; N=1533, n=1533||SMD 0.59 (0.13 to 1.05)||5 Low, 2 Moderate ROB; precise estimate; direct inconsistent (I2=95.9%)||Moderate; virtual intervention>TAU||The SOE is moderate that virtual interventions have greater reduction in depression severity compared with TAU|
|KQ1c (virtual vs attention control)|
|Remission||RCT (2 trials), 6-8 weeks; N=226, n=99||OR 1.92 (1.10 to 3.35)||1 Low, 1 Moderate ROB (decrease); imprecise estimate (decrease); direct consistent (I2=50%)||Low; virtual CBTj>attention control||The SOE is low that virtual CBT has 2 times greater odds of remission than virtual psychoeducation|
|Response||RCT (2 trials), 6-8 weeks; N=226, n=79||OR 1.68 (0.96 to 2.96)||1 Low, 1 Moderate ROB (decrease); imprecise estimate (decrease); direct consistent (I2=0%)||Low; no statistically significant difference||The SOE is low there are no substantial differences in response between virtual CBT and virtual psychoeducation|
|Depression severity||RCT (3 trials), 6-8 weeks; N=573, n=573||SMD 0.25 (0.09 to 0.42)||2 Low, 1 Moderate ROB; precise estimate; direct consistent (I2=0%)||High; virtual CBT>attention control||The SOE is high that virtual CBT has greater reduction in depression severity compared with virtual psychoeducation|
|KQ2 (in-person vs virtual)|
|Remission||RCT (4 trials), 8-20 weeks; N=789, n=288,||OR 0.84 (0.51 to 1.37)||Low ROB; imprecise estimate (decrease); direct consistent (I2=60.1%)||Moderate; no statistically significant difference, noninferiority trialsf||The SOE is moderate that there are no substantial differences in remission between in-person and virtual interventions|
|Response||RCT (3 trials), 8-18 weeks; N=635, n=230||OR 0.82 (0.44 to 1.54)||Low ROB; imprecise estimate (decrease); direct consistent (I2=64.7%)||Moderate; no statistically significant difference, noninferiority trials||The SOE is moderate that there are no substantial differences in response between in-person and virtual interventions|
|Depression severity||RCT (3 trials), 8-20 weeks; N=548, n=548||SMD –0.04 (–0.30 to 0.23)||Low ROB; precise estimate; direct consistent (I2=51.5%)||Moderate; no statistically significant difference, noninferiority trials||The SOE is moderate that there are no substantial differences in posttreatment depression severity between in-person and virtual interventions|
aBased on risk of bias, precision of estimate, directness of comparison, and consistency.
bRCT: randomized controlled trial.
cOR: odds ratio.
dROB: risk of bias.
eImprecision is based on the number of events <300 events, or n=400 for continuous events or very wide confidence intervals; precision was the primary variable that influenced strength of evidence ratings given that most trials had low risk of bias and were direct and consistent.
fSOE: strength of evidence.
gInconsistent was based on I2>75%.
hSMD: standardized mean difference.
iTAU: treatment as usual.
jCBT: cognitive behavioral therapy.
Efficacy of Virtual Intervention Versus Waitlist Control (KQ1a)
The efficacy of virtual interventions compared with waitlist was assessed in seven double-blinded RCTs [, - ] ( ). Most trials compared virtual CBT with waitlist [ , , , , ]: four trials examined virtual CBT guided by mental health providers [ , , , ], two examined unguided virtual CBT [ , ], and one examined CBT provided via email [ ]. Two studies examined virtual adaptations of evidence-based therapies other than CBT (ie, combined acceptance and commitment therapy and behavioral activation [BA] [ ] and problem-solving therapy [ ]).
Remission was evaluated in four trials [, - ]. Two of the trials included comparisons of two different intervention arms against waitlist control groups: Berger et al [ ] examined both guided and unguided virtual CBT compared with waitlist, and Vernmark et al [ ] examined both guided virtual CBT and CBT provided via email compared with waitlist. Meta-analysis including a total of five comparisons across three studies showed that the odds of remission were 10 times higher (95% CI 5.70-18.60; N=619; high SOE) with virtual intervention compared with waitlist ( ). Response was measured in three separate comparisons across two studies [ , ]. The odds of response did not substantially differ between virtual interventions and waitlist (OR 3.57, 95% CI 0.86-14.87; N=221; low SOE). Depression severity at posttreatment was assessed in seven trials [11,22–27]. Virtual interventions resulted in lower depression severity at posttreatment compared with waitlist (SMD 0.81, 95% CI 0.52-1.10; N=1071; moderate SOE).
Efficacy of Virtual Intervention Versus TAU (KQ1b)
Efficacy of virtual interventions compared with TAU was evaluated in eight double-blinded RCTs [, - ] ( ). Three of the trials focused on interventions for specific populations: those with perinatal-onset MDD [ , , ], a majority-male veteran cohort [ ], and a Latinx Spanish-speaking population [ ] ( ). Most virtual interventions involved guided virtual CBT [ - , - ]; however, two trials provided synchronous telehealth interventions, including interpersonal therapy delivered by nurses via telephone [ ] and supportive therapy plus pharmacotherapy provided by a psychiatrist via video visits [ ]. Most TAU study arms consisted of primary care appointments, scheduled on an as-needed basis delivered by physicians [ - , ].
Remission was evaluated in four trials [, , , ]. The odds of remission were two times higher with virtual intervention compared with TAU (OR 2.27, 95% CI 1.54-3.35; N=512; moderate SOE) ( ). Response was evaluated in three trials [ , , ]. The odds of response were nearly three times higher with virtual intervention compared with TAU (OR 2.95, 95% CI 1.51-5.75; N=450; moderate SOE). Depression severity was evaluated in seven trials [ , - ]. Virtual intervention resulted in a lower depression severity at posttreatment compared with TAU (SMD 0.59, 95% CI 0.13-1.05; N=1533; moderate SOE).
Efficacy of Virtual Therapy Versus Attention Control (KQ1c)
Five trials compared a virtual adaptation of an evidence-based intervention (eg, CBT [, , ], BA [ ], or psychodynamic therapy [ ]) with a virtual control (ie, mindfulness [ ]) or sham condition ( ). Of these, three studies compared virtual CBT with attention control conditions, which included online psychoeducation [ , ] and progressive muscle relaxation [ ]. These three studies were included in one set of meta-analyses based on the consistency in interventions (virtual CBT) and attention control conditions ( ).
Remission and response were assessed in two trials [, ], both of which compared virtual CBT to virtual psychoeducation and favored virtual CBT in terms of both remission and response ( ). The odds of remission were higher with virtual CBT compared with virtual psychoeducation (OR 1.92, 95% CI 1.10-3.35; N=226; low SOE), whereas there was no statistically significant difference in response rates between virtual CBT and virtual psychoeducation (OR 1.68, 95% CI 0.96-2.96; N=226; low SOE). Depression severity at posttreatment was evaluated in three trials [ , , ]. All three studies favored virtual CBT compared with an attention control condition. Virtual CBT resulted in lower depression severity at posttreatment compared with virtual psychoeducation (SMD 0.25, 95% CI 0.09-0.42; N=573; high SOE).
Efficacy of In-Person Versus Virtual Intervention (KQ2)
Efficacy of in-person compared with virtual delivery of behavioral therapy, either CBT or BA, was evaluated in four RCTs [, - ] ( ), three of which were noninferiority trials [ - ] powered to evaluate whether virtual therapy provides at least the same benefit to the patient as in-person therapy. Two of the virtual interventions were guided virtual CBT [ , ] and two were synchronous telehealth interventions [ , ]. One trial compared in-person group CBT with virtual CBT [ ].
Remission was evaluated in four trials [, , ]. In no study did remission rates for the in-person intervention exceed those seen in virtual interventions ( ). Indeed, one trial reported significantly lower remission rates in the in-person CBT groups compared with virtual CBT (19% vs 52%; P<.005) [ ]. The odds of remission with the in-person intervention were not higher than those with the virtual intervention (OR 0.84, 95% CI 0.51-1.37; N=789; moderate SOE). Sensitivity analysis excluding the study of Andersson et al [ ], as the only trial comparing group therapy with virtual therapy, similarly indicated no significant difference but resolved the heterogeneity (OR 1.05, 95% CI 0.77-1.43; I2=0) ( , Figure A1).
Response was evaluated in three trials [- ]. None of the trials reported better outcomes for the in-person arm. Indeed, after 8 weeks of intervention, in-person group CBT produced a significantly lower response rate than virtual CBT (25% vs 52%; P=.02) [ ]. The odds of response with in-person intervention were no higher than those with virtual intervention (OR 0.82, 95% CI 0.44-1.54; N=635; moderate SOE) ( ). Sensitivity analysis dropping the outlier [ ] similarly indicated no statistically significant difference ( , Figure A1).
Depression severity was evaluated in all four trials [, - ]; none reported a benefit for in-person compared to virtual intervention. One trial comparing BA delivered in person versus via telehealth reported no statistically significant difference in depressive severity at posttreatment, but did not provide sufficient quantitative data [ ] and was thus excluded from meta-analysis. In-person intervention was not associated with lower depression severity at posttreatment compared with virtual interventions (SMD –0.04, 95% CI –0.30 to 0.23; N=548; moderate SOE) ( ) for the remaining three trials.
Comparative Efficacy of Various Virtual Interventions (KQ3)
No trials comparing the efficacy of one virtual intervention with another virtual intervention were identified in our searches that met our inclusion criteria.
Virtual intervention for individuals with mild to moderate depressive disorders resulted in higher remission rates and a lower severity of symptoms at posttreatment compared with waitlist, TAU, and attention control conditions. There was no consistent evidence that an in-person intervention is significantly more efficacious than a virtual intervention for depression. Two studies compared telehealth with in-person sessions, while two studies compared virtual behavior therapies with in-person sessions. Despite these methodological differences, heterogeneity between studies was low and sensitivity analyses showed no difference in results if any study was removed. Studies included individuals with mild to moderate depressive disorders across a number of patient populations, including primary care patients, veterans, perinatal women, and Spanish-speaking Latinx individuals, suggesting relatively broad generalizability to depressed populations in countries with a very high human development index. Of note, we found no eligible studies comparing the effectiveness of different active virtual interventions, which is an important research and clinical gap that should be addressed in future trials. Taken together, the results suggest that virtual therapy is an effective method of treatment for mild to moderate depressive disorders. The results further suggest a lack of clear evidence that in-person treatment is superior to virtual treatment for those with mild to moderate depressive disorders without significant comorbidity and living in countries with a very high human development index.
Given the significant limitations in access to evidence-based care in the United States, this represents a potential opportunity to increase access to effective and affordable treatment. Despite the finding that, on average, there is not reliable evidence that in-person treatment is superior to virtual treatment for depressive disorders, critical research to identify which patients benefit most from in-person and virtual treatment has not been done. Some patients may benefit more from in-person therapy than virtual treatment. Many people do not have access to high-speed internet, a private space for virtual sessions, or a home environment that is safe or conductive to engaging in therapy at home. None of the studies included in this review addressed these important individual differences that may differentially impact treatment feasibility, acceptability, and outcomes. As such, in-person therapy for mood disorders remains an important first-line treatment option. However, virtual therapy can be considered an additional first-line treatment option, particularly for those who prefer it and those without transportation, time, or geographical access to in-person treatment.
This systematic review and meta-analysis had important limitations. For some of the outcomes, a low number of events (ie, remission or response) observed across a small number of studies reduced the SOE, particularly in the case of response, which had the lowest number of observations of any outcome assessed and resulted in low to moderate SOE ratings across each key question. Our review was narrowly focused on depression intervention outcomes: all of the trials that met the inclusion criteria focused on interventions for MDD, and despite inclusion criteria of all depressive disorders, none examined other depressive disorders or other common co-occurring conditions such as anxiety disorders. Only one study included individuals with severe depressive symptoms, and therefore conclusions cannot be made regarding the utility of virtual therapy for those with more severe presentations. Interventions ranged in duration from 6 to 24 weeks. We evaluated immediate effects of the intervention on depression outcomes; however, due to variability in follow-up assessments, we did not examine long-term outcomes. Patient adherence to the intervention was not defined consistently across studies, and intervention fidelity was not assessed in most studies. Thus, neither variable could be evaluated as part of our risk of bias assessment. The studies included in KQ2 evaluated heterogeneous treatment populations (eg, veterans, primary care patients), and different in-person (eg, group therapy, individual therapy) and virtual (eg, telephone therapy, video therapy, virtual CBT) treatments. Although sensitivity analyses suggested that the results were the same when eliminating heterogeneous studies, additional studies are needed to have strong confidence in the results.
Comparison With Prior Work
The results of this study were consistent with older meta-analyses establishing the efficacy of virtual CBT for depression and anxiety compared with no intervention [- ], and with a recent meta-analysis examining the effectiveness [ ] of open-label, nonrandomized virtual and other remote interventions for depression and anxiety, compared with control conditions. Similar to prior meta-analyses [ , ], we found that the effect size comparing virtual intervention with waitlist was larger than that for TAU. Our results were also similar to past meta-analyses showing that outcomes for virtual treatment were at least as good as outcomes for face-to-face therapy [ , ]. Our study extended these findings by including only individuals diagnosed with MDD and by examining not only depressive symptoms but also remission and response rates. To our knowledge, this was the first meta-analysis to compare virtual with face-to-face interventions for individuals with clinically confirmed diagnoses of depressive disorders with a focus on remission and response. Our review adds to the literature by (1) focusing on depressive disorders and not only depressive symptoms, which could be subthreshold, less severe, and less likely to show a difference between two interventions; and (2) including two noninferiority trials, which provides a stronger test of whether virtual therapy provides at least the same benefit as in-person therapy. With this more rigorous test, virtual interventions performed as well as face-to-face therapy.
Strengths of this systematic review included a multidimensional approach to assessing risk of bias, based on both the Cochrane risk of bias tool  and guidelines for applying the Cochrane tool to psychotherapy trials [ ]. Psychotherapy trials, by definition, do not allow for participant blinding in the same way as medication trials. Yet, the underlying principle of blinding is believability of or confidence in the intervention to a similar degree across both the active intervention and control conditions. Only one trial with an active control condition assessed or attempted to control for participants’ confidence in the intervention. This absence represents a weakness in the psychotherapy literature that should be addressed by future trials. Other strengths of this systematic review were the inclusion of only RCTs, trials that required a depression diagnosis at baseline, use of a validated assessment of depression outcome, and those with low to medium risk of bias, which increased the strength of the conclusions.
These results carry implications for health systems and mental health clinicians, policymakers, and researchers. Mental health clinics with long waitlists for evidence-based interventions and primary care clinics offering TAU could improve patient outcomes, reduce wait times, and reserve face-to-face sessions with therapists for those with the most severe symptoms by providing virtual interventions. With the rates of depression reaching epidemic proportions during the COVID-19 pandemic, existing efficacious technological solutions can help reduce the burden on the health care system, increase access to mental health care, and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in health care settings. Implementation research is needed to determine when and for whom virtual interventions work best and when they may serve as an alternative to face-to-face therapy. Studies examining the efficacy of virtual adaptations of other evidence-based interventions for depression (eg, BA, acceptance and commitment therapy), optimal amount of guidance for virtual interventions (eg, regularly scheduled or as-needed coaching), optimal format for provider involvement (eg, telephone or email), and degree of provider training (eg, peer support, trained coaches, or licensed mental health providers) are needed to guide clinical decision-making. Nevertheless, our results suggest that virtual interventions provide an efficacious mechanism for scaling-up depression interventions to meet the growing demands created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
We thank our colleague, Nate Sowa, MD, for raising the important questions of whether virtual interventions work, whether in-person interventions work better, and which virtual interventions work best.
Conflicts of Interest
Supplementary information: Tables A1-A5; Figure A1.DOC File , 2331 KB
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|AHRQ: Agency for Healthcare and Research Quality|
|BA: behavioral activation|
|CBT: cognitive behavioral therapy|
|KQ: key question|
|MDD: major depressive disorder|
|MeSH: Medical Subject Heading|
|OR: odds ratio|
|PRISMA: Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses|
|RCT: randomized controlled trial|
|SMD: standardized mean difference|
|SOE: strength of evidence|
|TAU: treatment as usual|
Edited by J Torous, G Eysenbach; submitted 25.04.22; peer-reviewed by P von Wedel; comments to author 08.06.22; revised version received 03.08.22; accepted 18.08.22; published 09.01.23Copyright
©Crystal Edler Schiller, Julianna Prim, Anna E Bauer, Linda Lux, Laura Claire Lundegard, Michelle Kang, Samantha Hellberg, Katherine Thompson, Theresa Webber, Adonay Teklezghi, Noah Pettee, Katherine Gaffney, Gabrielle Hodgins, Fariha Rahman, J Nikki Steinsiek, Anita Modi, Bradley N Gaynes. Originally published in JMIR Mental Health (https://mental.jmir.org), 09.01.2023.
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