Okiishi, J., Lambert, M. J., Nielsen, S. L., & Ogles, B. M. (2003). Waiting for supershrink: An empirical analysis of therapist effects. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 10(6), 361-373.
Much of psychotherapy research has focused on searching for effective psychotherapies rather than focusing on effective psychotherapists. Research on psychotherapies generally assumes that therapists are equally effective or relatively less important to patient outcomes than the interventions themselves. Therapists in clinical trials are trained to follow a manual in an attempt to reduce the therapists’ impact on patient outcomes, and to focus the study on the specific ingredients of the therapy itself. However, research indicates that the degree to which a therapist follows a manual has little bearing on patient outcomes, and that therapists do differ in terms of their patients’ outcomes. In one large study, between 33% and 65% of therapists was ineffective or harmful. Okiishi and colleagues asked if it is possible to identify highly effective therapists (“super-shrinks”) and highly ineffective therapists (“pseudo-shrinks”) based on their patients’ outcomes. The therapists were 56 men and women who treated 1779 clients in a university counselling centre. Each therapist saw at least 15 clients, so that there was a good sampling of therapists’ outcomes across a variety of clients. Therapists had a range of experience, training, and theoretical orientations. Clients were adults who had moderate to severe problems with anxiety, depression, or adjustment. Outcomes were measured after every session, and the average number of sessions was 5.16 (SD = 7.20). On average clients improved so that their level of distress significantly declined. Therapist characteristics (sex, experience, training background, theoretical orientation) did not predict patient outcomes. However, client change varied significantly, so that some clients improved at a faster rate than others, some did not change, and some got worse. There were no differences between therapists in their clients’ level of distress, so therapists had equivalent caseloads in terms of client initial distress. However, therapists significantly differed from each other in terms of their clients’ outcomes. For example, the top 3 therapists consistently had clients who got better (super-shrinks), and the bottom 3 therapists consistently had clients who got worse (pseudo-shrinks).
One would hope that a loved one would get to see a “super-shrink” therapist, since these therapists seem to consistently have clients who do well in therapy. But what about the average or “pseudo-shrink” therapist– what can be done to elevate their skills and their patients’ outcomes? We’ve discussed in this blog several things therapists can do to improve their outcomes, including: using progress monitoring in their practice, receiving training focused on deliberate practice, and seeking out specific continuing education around developing, maintaining, and repairing the therapeutic alliance.