Evidence Based Treatment and Psychology

As a psychologist trained 30 years ago in a Boulder-model scientist practitioner training program in clinical psychology, the ability to critically evaluate research and to determine its application to the treatment of my patients was an essential part of my practice and of my outlook on clinical psychology. That initial training fed my early interest in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I still have vivid recollection of attendance at my first two-day workshop conducted by Jeff Young (Jeffrey E. Young, Ph.D.) on Beck-style Cognitive Therapy of Depression, a workshop that had profound impact on the treatment I provided. Even my later identification as a Feminist Therapist and my questioning of programmed, patriarchal methods that elevated the therapist above the patient was always tempered by the need to use the scientific method in my practice and in my life. (I’ll credit George Kelly’s ‘man, the scientist’ and Franz Epting, Ph.D. for that.)

As I have mentioned previously, I have been retired from active practice since 1993. Imagine my surprise to learn this past November that clinical psychologists value their own experience and the guidance of their colleagues more than they do the dictates of science. In fact, according to the authors of Current Status and Future Prospects of Clinical Psychology: Toward a Scientifically Principled Approach to Mental and Behavioral Health Care by Timothy B. Baker, Richard M. McFall, and Varda Shoham, some clinical psychology training programs are downright anti-scientific. They believe the solution to this ‘problem’ is a new system of accreditation for training programs. NPR’s Science Friday aired an episode on this topic on December 4, 2009. The show, entitled The Science of Clinical Psychology, is a quick way to get a sense of the much longer paper.

This paper and the PR blitz surrounding it including an article in The Washington Post by the authors, has received strong reaction from practicing psychologists, directors of training programs in clinical psychology and divisions of the American Psychological Association (APA).

While some would describe the Baker, McFall, Shoham article as politically motivated and an attempt to wrest accreditation away from the APA, it seems to me that focusing in a defensive fashion on political motivations accomplishes little. Perpetuation of the ad hominem arguments used in the paper will not get us very far. Perhaps we should focus instead on the notion of scientific support for mental health and behavioral treatments, how clinical research might be encouraged, how evidence-based treatments (EBTs) might be most effectively promulgated, and whether psychologists are alone in their hesitance to adopt EBTs.

In his December editorial in Current Psychiatry Online, Henry A. Nasrallah, M.D. suggests that psychiatrists also could benefit from self-evaluation regarding their use of EBTs. Below is an excerpt from Dr. Nasrallah’s article:


 The Schizophrenia Patient Outcomes Research Team5 assessed how the treatment of 719 patients with schizophrenia conformed to 12 evidence-based treatment recommendations. Overall, <50% of treatments conformed to the recommendations, with higher conformance rates seen for rural than urban patients and for Caucasian patients than minorities.

A study using data from the National Comorbidity Survey6 found that only 40% of respondents with serious psychiatric disorders had received treatment in the previous 12 months, and only 15% received care considered at least minimally adequate. Four predictors of not receiving minimally adequate treatment included being a young adult or African-American, living in the South, suffering from a psychotic disorder, and being treated by physicians other than psychiatrists.

Finally, a recent survey of psychiatrists’ adherence to evidence-based antipsychotic treatment in schizophrenia7 showed: 1) mid-career psychiatrists more adherent than early or late-career counterparts; 2) male psychiatrists more adherent than female; 3) those carrying a large workload of schizophrenia patients more likely to adhere to scientific literature.

It would appear that psychologists and psychiatrists all need a stronger push toward use of EBTs.

In the world of community behavioral health, Medicaid and Medicare are pushing providers of care to the chronically mentally ill toward use of EBTs. SAMHSA has an entire section of its web site dedicated to EBTs. SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) contains a searchable database of interventions for the prevention and treatment of mental and substance use disorders. The database currently contains 150 entries along with a method for submitting programs for review and inclusion in the database. The NREPP has the potential for becoming a clearinghouse for effective behavioral health treatment interventions.

How does your organization approach the issue of evidence-based treatments? What is your take on the current controversy in the field of clinical psychology? How do you imagine we ought to move forward in advancing scientifically-tested approaches to mental health treatment? Given the costs of health care, this seems like an extremely important issue for all providers of behavioral health services to address.

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