My Career and Research
I am a British psychiatrist and clinical researcher. I am best known for my work on the development and evaluation of psychological treatments, especially for the eating disorders. I have one other major research interest: the use of digital technology to promote the dissemination of effective psychological interventions.
I have been fortunate to have received various awards and prizes. Most recently, I was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in the Queen's 2021 Birthday Honours, and in 2022 I received the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Award for the Applications of Psychology. I am only the third psychiatrist to have received this award in its 49-year history.
I went to school at Malvern College in Worcestershire. I then trained in Medicine at Oxford (1969-1974) and Psychiatry at Edinburgh (1976-1978). In 1980 I returned to Oxford where I have spent my career engaged in full-time clinical research. For the first three years I was funded by the Medical Research Council (1981-1984) and for the subsequent 33 years by the Wellcome Trust (1984-2017). During this time I founded CREDO, the well-known Centre for Research on Eating Disorders at Oxford. In 2017 I retired from full-time research. I am currently Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Oxford.
I have twice been a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford (1989-1990; 1998-99), and from 2007 to 2011 I was a Governor of the Wellcome Trust. I was then a founder trustee of the mental health charity MQ (2011-2016).
My research has led to the development of three widely-used treatments for the eating disorders:
1. A cognitive behavioural treatment for bulimia nervosa - As I will describe below, this treatment was the fruit of 25 years of research. Its endorsement by NICE in 2004, England’s highly-regarded National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, was a landmark as it was the first psychological treatment to be endorsed by NICE for any mental disorder. The endorsement was renewed in 2017.
2. A self-help treatment for people with recurrent binge eating (Overcoming Binge Eating - for details see separate page) - This self-help programme was derived from the cognitive behavioural treatment for bulimia nervosa. It is designed to be followed either on its own or accompanied by a form of support I termed termed "guided self-help". The guided version of the treatment was endorsed by NICE in 2017 as the first step in the treatment of both binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa. Guided self-help is now used to deliver many different self-help treatments.
3. Enhanced cognitive behaviour therapy for eating disorders (CBT-E) - This "transdiagnostic" treatment was designed to be suitable for all forms of eating disorder and it was developed in the late 1990s. In 2015 both NHS England and the Chief Medical Officer recommended that CBT-E be made available for all patients with an eating disorder, whatever their eating disorder diagnosis and whatever their age, and in 2017 CBT-E was endorsed by NICE. It is now being used worldwide. For more information on CBT-E see the CBT-E website - cbte.co.
I am lucky that this work has had a substantial impact (as pointed out in this extract taken from the opening section of the Wellcome Trust's 2017 Annual Report).
Mental Disorders in Low and Middle Income Countries
For the past 10 years I have been working closely with Professor Vikram Patel and his colleagues at Harvard and in India. The goal is to develop effective psychological interventions for common mental disorders, ones which are highly scalable. To date we have developed a simple, easily learned, treatment for moderate-to-severe depression, the Healthy Activity Program, and a brief problem-solving intervention for teenagers with pronounced depressive or anxiety symptoms. Both treatments have the potential to be used worldwide.
Patel V, Weobong B, Weiss HA, Anand A, Bhat B, Katti B, Dimidjian S, Araya R, Hollon SD, King M, Vijayakumar L, Park AL, McDaid D, Wilson T, Velleman R, Kirkwood BR, Fairburn CG. The Healthy Activity Program (HAP), a lay counsellor-delivered brief psychological treatment for severe depression, in primary care in India: a randomised controlled trial. Lancet 2016; 389: 176-185.
Digital Technology and the Dissemination of Psychological Treatments
I am also very interested in how to promote the global dissemination of psychological treatments and the use of digital technology to this end.
Fairburn CG, Patel V. The global dissemination of psychological treatments: a roadmap for research and practice. American Journal of Psychiatry 2014; 171: 495-498.
Fairburn CG, Patel V. The impact of digital technology on psychological treatments and their dissemination. Behavior Research and Therapy 2017; 88:19-25.
Three of lines of work are of relevance in this context:
1. The conversion of therapist-delivered psychological treatments into digital interventions - Like self-help books, most digital treatments are designed to delivered either on their own or with limited, often remotely-delivered, support (a form of guided self-help). They are highly scalable as they can be used within health care systems or as direct-to-user public health interventions. As an example, my CREDO colleague Rebecca Murphy has developed a digital form of CBT-E which can be accessed either via a smartphone app or online. It is currently under evaluation (see cbte.co).
2. The digital training of psychotherapists - My CREDO colleagues and I have also developed a digital method for training therapists. This has proved to be both popular and effective, and it has the enormous advantage of being able to train large numbers of geographically dispersed therapists thereby overcoming a major obstacle to the dissemination of psychological treatments. (For more information, see cbte.co)
Fairburn CG, Allen E, Bailey-Straebler S, O’Connor ME, Cooper Z. Scaling-up psychological treatments: A countrywide test of the online training of therapists. Journal of Medical Internet Research 2017; 19: e214.
Cooper Z, Allen E, Bailey-Straebler S, Morgan KE, O’Connor ME, Caddy C, Hamadi L, Fairburn CG. Using the internet to train therapists: A randomised comparison of two scalable methods. Journal of Medical Internet Research 2017;19: e355.
3. The global dissemination of effective psychological interventions - Lastly, I must refer to the EMPOWER initiative led by Vikram Patel. Its goal is to make effective psychological interventions (of any type) available to all those who might benefit from them, wherever they are. I chair the Advisory Board and Science Council. More information on this new initiative may be obtained here.
Measures of Eating Disorder Features
Lastly, we have developed several measures of eating disorder features and their effects, the main ones being the Eating Disorder Examination (EDE), the Eating Disorder Examination Questionnaire (EDE-Q) and the Clinical Impairment Assessment (CIA). All three measures are in widespread use and are available in multiple languages.
I must stress that little of the work described above was accomplished by me alone: rather, it has also involved many colleagues and collaborators (see Colleagues page).
Talks, Teaching and Training
My work has involved giving many talks, training workshops and teaching sessions. Below are links to two (partly autobiographical) presentations of mine:
The first is titled "Eating disorders and psychotherapy research" and was given to a general audience in Cardiff in 2010 (link to video).
The second is titled "Cognitive behaviour therapy for eating disorders (CBT-E): Past, present and future". This was my final invited lecture on eating disorders and was given to a specialist audience in Italy in 2019 (link to video).