Goldberg, S.B., Babins-Wagner, R., Rousmaniere, T., Berzins, S., Hoyt, W.T., Whipple, J.L., Miller, S.D., & Wampold, B.E. (2016). Creating a climate for therapist improvement: A case study of an agency focused on outcomes and deliberate practice. Psychotherapy, 53, 367-375.
There is a lot of evidence that psychotherapy is effective – a result that has been demonstrated in randomized trials and in naturalistic setting. As I have noted numerous times in this Blog, psychotherapy is as effective as medications but without the side effects and with longer lasting results. However, there is room for improvement, especially in the effectiveness of individual therapists. Health care organizations are increasingly interested in quality improvement, which refers to efforts to make changes in practice that will lead to better patient outcomes, better care, and better professional development. One approach to quality improvement in medicine has been through audit and feedback – which involves measuring a clinician’s practice, comparing the clinician’s outcomes to professional standards, and giving the clinician feedback. In psychotherapy, the analogue is routine outcome monitoring in which patient progress is monitored with standardized measures throughout therapy, and therapists receive ongoing feedback on each patient’s progress relative to the average patient with that disorder. We know that therapists tend not to improve in terms of patient outcomes with experience alone, and some authors argue that one of the things that therapists are missing is good quality information about their clients’ progress. What would happen if an agency or organization decided to make it a priority to provide therapists with quality information about client progress? This paper by Goldberg and colleagues is a case study in which an agency deliberately created a culture of quality feedback and professional development to improve therapist expertise, therapist intentional practice, and client outcomes. The case study is of a community mental health agency in Alberta. Over 5,000 clients were seen by 153 therapists over a 7 year period (2008 to 2015) as part of the study. Clients received at least three sessions of therapy (mean = 6.53 sessions, SD = 5.02), and had a range of disorders typically seen in a mental health clinic. Therapists included 49.7% licensed or provisionally licensed professionals at the masters or doctoral level from different professions (e.g., social work, psychology, pastoral counselling), and 50.3% practicum students. Throughout the 7 years of the study, therapists saw an average of 33.52 clients (SD = 26.24). In 2008, the agency required the staff to collect outcome measures of all clients before each session (although patient scores were not tied to staff performance evaluations). This policy change caused a 40% turnover in clinical staff within 4 months (clearly a large minority of therapists did not want to participate in this new clinic directive)! These staff positions were replaced and staffing was stable after that point. In addition to requiring clinicians to provide measures on all patients (although patients could decline to participate), the agency provided monthly clinical consultations with an external consultant as a means of professional development. During these consultation, clinicians were encouraged to bring cases that were not progressing well in order to get feedback on their most challenging patients. Discussions were organized around therapeutic alliance, i.e., clarifying goals and preferences, and ways of facilitating engagement. The overall results showed a significant decline in distress among patients over the course of treatment. Of most interest was that therapists on average showed a significant improvement in their outcomes over time. That is, contrary to research showing that therapists do not improve over time when left to their own devices, therapists in this agency that received feedback and professional education around difficult cases did improve significantly.
The findings of this study indicate that psychotherapists can improve over time if they receive quality information about client progress, and if they receive professional development that is tied to this information (i.e., concrete suggestions for ways of working with difficult clients). In other words, it is possible for therapist to develop expertise over time under some conditions. A significant challenge in this case study was that a number of therapists left the agency due to the quality improvement efforts. Some therapists are sensitive to or feel threatened by outcome monitoring. However, therapists who remained or who were subsequently hired by the agency showed a reliable increase in their expertise and client outcomes as a result of deliberate intentional practice, quality feedback about client progress, and concrete professional development focused on the therapeutic alliance.