Attrition in Conversational Agent–Delivered Mental Health Interventions: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Background: Conversational agents (CAs) or chatbots are computer programs that mimic human conversation. They have the potential to improve access to mental health interventions through automated, scalable, and personalized delivery of psychotherapeutic content. However, digital health interventions, including those delivered by CAs, often have high attrition rates. Identifying the factors associated with attrition is critical to improving future clinical trials. Objective: This review aims to estimate the overall and differential rates of attrition in CA-delivered mental health interventions (CA interventions), evaluate the impact of study design and intervention-related aspects on attrition, and describe study design features aimed at reducing or mitigating study attrition. Methods: We searched PubMed, Embase (Ovid), PsycINFO (Ovid), Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, and Web of Science, and conducted a gray literature search on Google Scholar in June 2022. We included randomized controlled trials that compared CA interventions against control groups and excluded studies that lasted for 1 session only and used Wizard of Oz interventions. We also assessed the risk of bias in the included studies using the Cochrane Risk of Bias Tool 2.0. Random-effects proportional meta-analysis was applied to calculate the pooled dropout rates in the intervention groups. Random-effects meta-analysis was used to compare the attrition rate in the intervention groups with that in the control groups. We used a narrative review to summarize the findings. Results: The systematic search retrieved 4566 records from peer-reviewed databases and citation searches, of which 41 (0.90%) randomized controlled trials met the inclusion criteria. The meta-analytic overall attrition rate in the intervention group was 21.84% (95% CI 16.74%-27.36%; I2=94%). Short-term studies that lasted ≤8 weeks showed a lower attrition rate (18.05%, 95% CI 9.91%- 27.76%; I2=94.6%) than long-term studies that lasted >8 weeks (26.59%, 95% CI 20.09%-33.63%; I2=93.89%). Intervention group participants were more likely to attrit than control group participants for short-term (log odds ratio 1.22, 95% CI 0.99-1.50; I2=21.89%) and long-term studies (log odds ratio 1.33, 95% CI 1.08-1.65; I2=49.43%). Intervention-related characteristics associated with higher attrition include stand-alone CA interventions without human support, not having a symptom tracker feature, no visual representation of the CA, and comparing CA interventions with waitlist controls. No participant-level factor reliably predicted attrition. Conclusions: Our results indicated that approximately one-fifth of the participants will drop out from CA interventions in short-term studies. High heterogeneities made it difficult to generalize the findings. Our results suggested that future CA interventions should adopt a blended design with human support, use symptom tracking, compare CA intervention groups against active controls rather than waitlist controls, and include a visual representation of the CA to reduce the attrition rate. Trial Registration: PROSPERO International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews CRD42022341415;

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