Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change: Starting in March 2013 I will review one chapter a month from the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change in addition to reviewing psychotherapy research articles. Book chapters have more restrictive copy right rules than journal articles, so I will not provide author email addresses for these chapters. If you are interested, the Handbook table of content and sections of the book can be read on Google Books.
Baldwin, S. & Imel, Z.E. (2013). Therapist effects. In M.E. Lambert (Ed.), Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, 6th Edition (pp. 258-297). New York: Wiley.
Does it matter that some therapists are more effective than others? Can less effective therapists be trained to improve their outcomes and relationship quality with patients? These are important questions not only for our patients’ well-being but also for the long term survival of psychotherapy as a health enterprise. If we do not measure outcomes and help therapists who are less effective, stakeholders (i.e., clients, families, agencies, insurance companies) may stop paying for the services. In the September 2013 blog I discussed a large study that showed that a few therapists were reliably harmful and some therapists were reliably helpful to their patients. That study also reported that most therapists were effective in 5 of 12 problem domains for which their patients sought help. What these findings and the Handbook chapter by Baldwin and Imel (2013) show is that there are significant between-therapist effects (i.e., therapists differed from each other on patient outcomes) and within-therapist effects (i.e., therapist outcomes within their own caseload differed based on the patients’ problems). Baldwin and Imel (2013) reported on their meta analysis in which between-therapist differences accounted for 5% of the outcome variance. That seems small, but it’s not. One study, for example, estimated that for each 100 patients that would be treated, the worst therapist compared to the best therapist would have 6 more patients who deteriorated. I would prefer my loved ones to be seen by the best therapist, even if the difference between best and worst is only 5%. Nevertheless, 95% of the variance in outcomes is within the therapist’s caseload. That is, the patient, other contextual variables, and the therapist-patient relationship are by far the biggest contributors to outcome. As Baldwin and Imel point out, not only are some therapists are more effective for some patients and not others, but also some therapists are better at developing a therapeutic relationship with some patients than with others. Baldwin and Imel reported that, on average, 9% of the variance in the quality of the therapeutic alliance is associated with the therapist – that’s a clinically meaningful effect.
As Baldwin and Imel (2013) state, ignoring therapist accountability is detrimental to patients and to the mental health field in general. If stakeholders do not see evidence of positive outcomes, then they will withdraw funding, and patients will have even less access to services. Therapists differ in their outcomes, and outcomes also differ within each therapist’s caseload. If a primary goal is to improve therapist performance and patient outcomes, then therapists need to measure outcomes and therapeutic relationship quality. This knowledge about performance with specific patients can help therapists seek continuing education and training to improve outcomes and therapeutic alliances with specific patients for whom the therapist is less effective. This may require continuous outcome monitoring and real-time feedback to therapists regarding their patients’ outcomes (see my September 2013 blog in identifying clients who might deteriorate).