Tracey, T.J.G., Wampold, B.E., Lichtenberg, J.W., & Goodyear, R.K. (2014). Expertise in psychotherapy: An elusive goal? American Psychologist, 69, 218-229.
As I have reported many times in this blog, there is substantial evidence for the efficacy of psychotherapy. However, the quality of psychotherapy differs across therapists – that is, some therapists achieve better client outcomes than others. Tracey and colleagues (2014) ask: is it possible to demonstrate expertise in psychotherapy? They define expertise as “increased quality of performance that is gained with additional experience”. Professions that can demonstrate expertise include: astronomers, test pilots, chess masters, mathematicians, and accountants. But several professions may not demonstrate expertise, including: psychiatrists, college admissions officers, court judges, personnel selectors, and psychotherapists. The difference is that the former group has predictable outcomes and has access to quality feedback. In addition, Tracey and colleagues argue that psychotherapy lacks adequate models for how interventions produce benefits. As a result, adherence to treatment protocols (i.e., manuals) is not reliably associated with better patient outcomes. Further, more experienced therapists are not more effective than less experienced therapists. Experienced therapists might have more complete conceptualizations of client problems, but these conceptualizations may not be accurate. Finally, although therapists affect outcomes, client variables (e.g., motivation, severity of symptoms, expectations) likely explain the largest proportion of outcome variance. Tracey and colleagues argue that part of the problem is that psychotherapists do not engage in “deliberate practice”; that is, practice of a specific task (e.g., identifying a rupture in the alliance), receiving specific feedback (e.g., that a rupture was not identified), opportunity for repetition (e.g., to identify a subsequent rupture in the alliance), and opportunity for improvement afforded by error (e.g., better able to identify a future rupture and repairing that rupture). Generally the practice of psychotherapy provides little feedback about the accuracy of past clinical decisions. In other words there is a lack of quality information to help therapists develop into experts. Further, for a whole host of reasons, psychotherapists are notoriously poor at assessing client progress (i.e., like other humans, therapists engage in a number of biased evaluations of their performance). Quality information might be available from progress monitoring (i.e., continuous feedback to therapists about client outcomes), which has been shown to improve client outcomes. However, this may not aid therapists in developing expertise, since progress monitoring provides little information about what therapist behaviors are necessary to improve performance and client outcomes.
Tracey and colleagues conclude that currently psychotherapy does not provide evidence that it is a profession with expertise. To achieve expertise, therapists need quality information not only about their patients’ outcomes but also about their own average outcomes (i.e. performance) relative to other therapists working with similar clients. And therapists need information on how to manage specific events in psychotherapy. Tracey and colleagues suggest therapists set aside time to generate hypotheses about one’s practice that can be disconfirmed, and then test these hypotheses. For example, if a therapist is experiencing a higher than average number of premature client terminations (which may follow a misunderstanding with the client), the therapist may hypothesize that he or she is not identifying key alliance ruptures. To test this hypothesis, the therapist could repeatedly assess the alliance (with a validated instrument) with some clients, use this information and not clinical judgement alone to identify alliance ruptures (i.e., a week to week severe downward trend in alliance scores), and implement an intervention to repair the alliance with these clients. Do clients with whom a therapist has implemented this procedure drop out at a lower rate? Does this process of deliberately identifying alliance ruptures and repairing them lead to enhanced therapist performance regarding alliance ruptures? This form of deliberate practice (testing disconfirmable hypotheses based on quality information) might lead to greater expertise in identifying alliance ruptures.