The design and evaluation of a health education control for comparison with cognitive behavioural therapy for individuals with acquired brain injury

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Background: In psychological research, control conditions in the form of “treatment as usual” provide support for intervention efficacy, but do not allow the attribution of positive outcomes to the unique components of the treatment itself. Attentionally and structurally equivalent active control conditions, such as health education (HE), have been implemented in recent trials of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). However, descriptions and evaluations of these control conditions are limited. The aims of this paper were to (i) provide a detailed description and rationale for a novel HE active control condition and (ii) to evaluate the face validity, treatment integrity and feasibility of HE. Method: We developed a HE active control similar in structure and duration to a CBT intervention for reducing sleep disturbance and fatigue (CBT-SF) in a pilot randomised controlled trial (n = 51). Face validity was measured using post-treatment participant satisfaction and helpfulness ratings for fatigue and sleep symptoms, treatment fidelity was measured with integrity monitoring ratings from an independent expert and feasibility was measured with completion and attrition rates. HE and CBT-SF groups were compared using Wilcoxon rank-sum tests and chi-square tests of independence. Results: There were no significant differences in participant ratings of overall satisfaction between HE (n = 17) and CBT (n = 34) or in how helpful each intervention was for fatigue symptoms. Participants rated helpfulness for sleep symptoms higher in the CBT-SF group compared to HE. Integrity monitoring ratings were not significantly different for overall treatment delivery and therapist competency, but HE had greater module adherence than CBT-SF. There were no significant differences in completion or attrition rates between groups. Conclusion: Our findings suggest that the HE control had adequate face validity, was delivered with fidelity and was feasible and suitable for use as a comparator for CBT-SF. In providing a real-world example of practical and theoretical issues we considered when designing this control condition, we aim to provide a framework and guidance for future investigators. Trial registration: ACTRN12617000879369 (registered 15/06/2017) and ACTRN12617000878370 (registered 15/06/2017).

Original languageEnglish
Article number120
Number of pages9
JournalPilot and Feasibility Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jun 2022


  • Acquired brain injury
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy
  • Control condition
  • Fatigue
  • Health education
  • Sleep

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