Wampold, B. & Owen, J. (2021). Therapist effects: History, methods, magnitude, and characteristics of effective therapists. In Barkham, W. Lutz, and L.G. Castonguay (Eds.) Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change (7th ed.). Wiley. Chapter 9.
One of the defining characteristics of expertise is the overall improvement in skills and performance over the course of one’s career. We can identify, for example, that there are experts in chess, tennis, surgery, and musical performance based on performance. Expertise in these areas is explicitly developed partly because there is clear and immediate feedback regarding performance (i.e., a tennis player knows immediately that they missed a serve, and so they make an adjustment on the next serve). In psychotherapy, this is not so easy. Therapists rarely receive immediate feedback about their specific interventions or interpersonal responsiveness to a patient. In this part of the chapter, Wampold and Owen review the research on the relationship between therapist experience and training and patient outcomes. They focus on high quality studies that disentangled therapist from patient effects. Overall, the evidence does not support the notion that the more experience that a therapist accumulates the better their patients’ outcomes. In fact, one study that tracked therapists over time (up to 18 years) found that patients’ outcomes got slightly worse with more experience. Similar findings occur for training of student therapists. For the most part, more training that student therapists received over a 12-to-42-month period was not associated with better patient outcomes. There is some evidence that trainees can improve their capacity to develop a therapeutic alliance, and that with more deliberate practice (focused, immediate attention and feedback on specific skills) therapists can realize better outcomes with their patients.
As a senior therapist who is very involved in training, I find these results discouraging. Nevertheless, the solutions offered by the research do provide a ray of hope. Providing therapists with specific and immediate feedback about patient outcomes and therapeutic processes (e.g., ratings of patient distress and of the alliance after every session), has the potential for helping therapists to inform their practice, make adjustments, and develop expertise. Deliberate practice of specific skills in psychotherapy (e.g., ways of addressing an alliance rupture or of responding to intense emotion) may also improve therapist expertise and patient outcomes. It is also quite possible that the focus on learning specific manualized protocols, which is often the goal of graduate and post-graduate training, may not be the most effective training and professional development.