The Myth of Evidence-Based Practice
In spite of the call to provide a bridge between therapeutic methods and scientific findings, the growing ascendancy of evidence-based practice may also be understood as the product of increasing competition among the mental health professions. Since the 1980s, the number of mental health practitioners has jumped by some 275 percent. Consumers can currently choose among psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counselors, marriage and family therapists, psychiatric nurses, pastoral counselors, addiction counselors and many others advertising their services under a variety of job titles and descriptions. In response, the various professional groups have felt an urgent need to document the scientific efficacy of their preferred approaches. In the early 1990s, members of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) decided that they should take the lead in determining the best treatments for the various diagnostic subgroups. So in 1993, the APA established the Steering Committee for Practice Guidelines to prepare guidelines designating specific treatments for specific disorders.
Beginning in 1993 with guidelines for Major Depression and Eating Disorders, the committee has produced guidelines for 10 disorders ranging from Bipolar Disorder to Alzheimer's Disease to Nicotine Dependence. Practice guidelines cover everything from treatment planning to psychiatric management and treatment selection for each of the disorders. More recent guidelines, issued since 1997, also include "practice parameters," ranging from "standards" (should be followed with few exceptions), to "guidelines" (exceptions are not rare, but require justification) to, finally, "options" (where there is no preference between choices). Yet, despite the committee's claim to strong empirical support for its recommendations and reliance on overwhelming clinical consensus, these guidelines have been criticized for treating open therapeutic questions about treatment effectiveness as though they have been definitively settled. For example, the guidelines for the treatment of depression are heavily skewed toward pharmacological intervention, despite the questionable evidence of the efficacy of drug therapy and the fact that studies show that psychotherapy with depressed people provides at least as much--and perhaps longer-lasting--symptom relief. However, the APA's imprimatur has given an aura of scientific legitimacy to what was primarily an agreement among psychiatrists about their preferred practices, with an emphasis on biological treatment.
The other APA, the American Psychological Association, was quick to follow psychiatry's lead, arguing that clients have a right to proven treatments. In 1993, a special APA task force, deriding psychiatry's approved treatment list as medically biased and unrepresentative of the clinical literature, set forth its conclusions about what constituted scientifically valid psychological treatments. Instead of clinical consensus and comprehensive guidelines, the task force concentrated its efforts on research demonstrations that a particular treatment has proven to be beneficial for clients in well-controlled studies. To be considered well established, a treatment must have demonstrated that its benefits exceed those of an alternative treatment or a placebo condition that controls for attention and expectancy. Additionally, this efficacy must be demonstrated by at least two independent research teams.
Since then, the task force has cited 71 empirically supported approaches for an ever-expanding list of disorders. Perhaps believing more is better, the list not only covers conditions like depression and anxiety, but also addresses marital discord, health problems and sexual dysfunction, to mention a few. While the psychiatry association's guidelines focus on a thorough delineation of psychiatric treatment for a few disorders, relying extensively on clinical consensus among experts, the psychology association's list emphasizes specific treatments with replicated empirical support.