The debate over evidence-based practice (also known as empirically-supported treatment) in psychology is contentious and polarizing. Evidence-based practice, as defined by the APA, is “the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture and preferences.” The debate over evidence-based practice can be summarized as follows:
Proponents of evidence-based treatment argue that clinical psychologists are scientists, that psychotherapy is (or should be) based upon scientific theory, and therefore therapists must use the best available scientific evidence in their practice of psychotherapy. They argue that the public must be protected from therapies which are not evidence-based, as such therapies may be ineffective or harmful.
Opponents of the evidence-based practice movement argue that psychotherapy is an art rather than a science, and that the essence of what they do – the “human element” – cannot possibly be manualized or subjected to clinical trials. Opponents are typically therapists who practice relationship- or insight-oriented approaches. They see their work as diametrically opposed to the principals of evidence-based practice.
I understand and appreciate the arguments of the opponents, and I do believe they have some valid points. However, I have established my professional identity as a strong proponent of evidence-based treatment.
When you visit a physician for an illness and she prescribes a medication, you can safely assume that the medication has been FDA-approved for your particular illness, that it is likely to be effective, and that it is unlikely to seriously harm you.
Imagine the following scenario: Drug A was used to treat Illness X twenty years ago. Then, ten years ago, clinical studies showed that Drug B is significantly more effective than Drug A in treating illness X. A physician, Dr. Dolittle, continues to prescribe Drug A for Illness X because he really believes it works, and because he was taught that Drug A works well when he was a medical student 20 years ago. Dr. Dolittle does not inform his patients that Drug B exists, because he doesn’t believe it will work for them and he has no experience with it.
The scenario described above would not happen in medicine, would it? And if it did happen, Dr. Dolittle would be reprimanded by the medical board and may have his license revoked.
Believe it or not, this scenario happens in psychology all the time. Most people outside the field would be shocked to learn that the majority of psychological treatment out there is NOT evidence-based.
I have seen patients who underwent years of psychodynamic therapy for severe depression, without getting any better, without being told about cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and without being referred to a psychiatrist for a medication evaluation. I have seen patients with anxiety disorders whose psychiatrists have prescribed multiple medications for them, never once referring them for psychological treatment, without ever mentioning that CBT at least as effective, if not more so, than medication for most anxiety disorders. I have seen patients who suffered from eating disorders for many years, who have seen many therapists, who have had multiple stints in residential treatment and have taken numerous medications, but were never restored to their ideal body weight and never provided with the support they needed to eat properly. And finally, a substantial portion of my case load is comprised of teenagers with eating disorders who have experienced months or years of ineffective, non-evidence-based treatment. The families of these teenagers were never informed about Family-Based Treatment (FBT), which is the only empirically-supported treatment for adolescents with eating disorders. Their parents discovered FBT on their own through desperate late-night internet searches.
These patients are pleasantly surprised to see how quickly and dramatically they improve with evidence-based treatment. They are also angry that they were not provided with, or at least informed about, effective treatment from the start. I believe that all patients and their families deserve to be fully informed about the range of different treatment options available to them, including evidence-based treatment. I do believe that there is a place for non-evidence based treatment, but patients and families should know from the outset what they are getting.
Evidence-based practice is not about using treatment manuals verbatim, or only relying upon randomized clinical trials. Treatment manuals are necessary for research and dissemination, but they are not intended to be followed verbatim with every patient in the real world. Manuals don’t treat patients – they merely provide a guide and a plan of action which may be revised and altered as needed for each unique patient. The basic principles and techniques of the treatment are the brick and mortar; the details of each room can and should be tailored to the individual.
Clinical psychology is a science, but it is not as precise as the so-called “hard sciences” like physics or mathematics. The brain is too intricate; human behavior too complex to be boiled down to immutable formulas. There is, and always will be, room for intuition, creativity, spontaneity, and that intangible “human element” that cannot be manualized or subjected to laboratory research. But the evidence base is there, so we owe it to our patients and to our profession to use it. Otherwise, we are no better than Dr. Dolittle.