Exploring online vs. face-to-face group therapy efficacy

Tuesday, Jun 25, 2024 • Jaelon Jackson :

By Jaelon Jackson
School of Social Work

Maryam Rafieifar
Dr. Maryam Rafieifar, Assistant Professor


A School of Social Work assistant professor and researcher at the University of Texas at Arlington conducted a study comparing the effectiveness of online and face-to-face group therapy.  

Dr. Maryam Rafieifar, who has an undergraduate degree in statistics and two master’s degrees – one in social science research and the other master’s in urban and regional planning, led the study.

Dr. Rafieifar, who earned a Ph.D. in Public Health and Social Work from Florida International University, conducts research in immigration and child welfare with a strong emphasis on quantitative methodologies, including meta-analyses.

The study began as part of a collaborative project to write a book chapter on online group work during the pandemic. Noticing a gap in systematic research on the subject, Dr. Rafieifar initiated a comprehensive review to determine if group therapy's efficacy differs between online and in-person formats.

Dr. Rafieifar wanted to see if there are efficacy differences between face-to-face and online group therapies. 

"We are moving towards using online platforms more and more, but it seems very challenging to handle group therapy online with regard to privacy and group dynamics,” Dr. Rafieifar said. 

The research reviewed 15 randomized control trials (RCTs), covering a range of issues and populations, including cancer survivors, individuals with chronic diseases, and those dealing with depression and anxiety. 

The results indicated online group interventions were generally as effective as face-to-face sessions, with only three studies showing a slight preference for face-to-face therapy.Dr. Rafieifar said this has significant implications for practice. 

"Practitioners who are hesitant to adopt online therapy can be reassured that these interventions can be just as effective, which is particularly beneficial for those in remote areas or those who prefer the convenience of online sessions," Dr. Rafieifar said.

Dr. Rafieifar presented her findings at the International Association for Social Work with Groups (IASWG) symposium in Madrid, where it garnered interest from clinicians seeking evidence-based approaches.

Looking ahead, Dr. Rafieifar plans to explore hybrid group therapy models and the processes within these interventions. She also aims to investigate whether the effectiveness of online interventions has evolved with technological advancements.

Dr. Rafieifar's transition from statistics to social work was influenced by her work with international organizations like the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, where she engaged with immigrant populations. 

Her experiences, particularly along the Iran-Afghanistan border, sparked her interest in social work and her focus on immigrant families.

Her research, while methodologically driven, remains focused on improving the lives of immigrant populations. 

By examining the efficacy of online group therapy, Dr. Rafieifar's work contributes to the understanding and potential expansion of accessible therapeutic interventions.