Can Online Therapy Be Effective For Treating Bulimia?

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For the past eight years, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been running an experimental trial to assess the effectiveness of online therapy compared to face-to-face group therapy for people living with bulimia.

Now, the results of the study in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics suggest the treatment may provide results similar to in-person therapy, however at a slower pace. The findings could open the door to expanded treatment in rural areas which often do not have access to specialized eating disorder treatment.

“Bulimia nervosa is a devastating and sometimes deadly illness, and research has shown for years that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for bulimia is the most effective treatment, said Stephanie Zerwas, PhD, first author of the study, associate professor of psychiatry in the UNC School of Medicine, and clinical director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders. “I know that too many people have to travel for hours to find expert eating disorders treatment. Online treatment could help us bridge that gap.”

For the study, the team randomly placed 179 adults into two groups undergoing 16 sessions of group or online therapy with therapists at UNC-Chapel Hill and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC) of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The researchers then compared the results of the two groups immediately after the end of treatment, and then again a year later. While the face-to-face group showed better results immediately following treatment, the gap in treatment results had narrowed significantly by the 12-month follow-up.

“We have evidence-based treatments that are effective for many people with bulimia, but many people don’t have access to specialist care,” said Cynthia M. Bulik, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Eating Disorders at UNC, founding director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, and director of the Center for Eating Disorders Innovation at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. “This study encourages us to use technology to bring treatment to the patients who can’t come to us.”

Further research is needed to confirm the effectiveness of online therapy, but the results provide hope to many who currently live hundreds or even thousands of miles from specialized eating disorder treatment centers.

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