The Psychoanalysis in Psychology Diplomate: What You May Not Have Known

The following was published in the summer 2009 issue of The Specialist, the newsletter of the American Board of Professional Psychology. — Marilyn S. Jacobs, Ph.D., Chair, Accreditation Committee, Division 39

Myths about ABPP and Board Certification in Professional Psychology

Christine Maguth Nezu, Ph.D., ABPP
President, ABPP

Myth 1. ABPP is a Largely Academic and Elitist Organization.

Myth-busting facts. The mission of ABPP is to board certify individuals in various psychology specialties. As such, board-certified specialists are first and foremost, competent professionals who are responsible for the delivery of best practices of their specialty. It is true that, In addition to their commitment to providing competent services to the public, some psychologists who hold leadership positions on the various ABPP boards and academies also hold leadership positions in various clinical training or academic institutions. However, this is not elitist, rather, simply attests to their active participation in the growth and improvement of the field. Board-certified specialists are individuals who are interested in promoting competent practice, at all levels of experience, from the full range of professional service settings, and from all theoretic orientations. Since when did the aspiration of competent practice cease signifying responsibility and start signifying elitism?

Myth 2. If one is Licensed, There is No Need for Further Evaluation of His or Her Abilities.

Myth-busting facts. Technically, in order to legally and ethically engage in independent general practice, this is correct. However, if one considers him- or herself a specialist regarding assessment, treatment, or consultation in any of the recognized specialty areas within professional psychology, there is a growing interest among jurisdictional regulators and third- party payers to look toward board certification, similar to medicine, as a way to credential competent specialty practice. Moreover, our own ethical standards require us to provide services within the boundaries of our competencies. Board certification goes beyond what knowledge we have obtained and extends to how we competently apply what we know in day-to-day specialty practice.

Myth 3. I am a Quality Provider and Very Successful. I Don’t Need ABPP to Attract Patients.

Myth-busting facts. ABPP was never intended to be a marketing vehicle by which individuals could attract patients or increase the entrepreneurship of their practice (although it is a reported additional benefit for some). Rather, when high quality providers (e.g., the very people who subscribe to this myth and accurately self-identify in this way) are recognized through board certification, the process uplifts the entire profession because their practice provides the specialty benchmarks for competent work. One psychologist (who previously subscribed to this myth) recently told me that it was his concern about uplifting the profession during our discussions that sold him on the importance of board certification through ABPP.

Myth 4. ABPP Does Not Have Value for Me. Indeed, if I Take the Exam, I May be Communicating That I Am Not Competent Until I am Board Certified.

Myth-busting Facts. Ask any ABPP board certified psychologist if they ever questioned the board-certification process or if they experienced any fears of how patients or colleagues might react if they did not pass (although the pass rate for individuals taking the exam is high, most all of us have experienced these fears). It is important to consider that many of the most valuable personal learning experiences involve some discomfort. After the first question, the board-certified specialist should then be additionally asked why he or she decided that it was still worth the time, effort, and cost to get board certified. I have never spoken to a specialist who regretted their decision. With regard to concerns about performance, there is much one can do to increase the likelihood of a successful exam experience by seeking information, guidance, and mentorship through the specialty board or academy of interest. More important, ABPP’s value far exceeds the individual sense of accomplishment, the increase in practice mobility, the increase in employment or salary opportunities, and increased protection of the public. Its value is important primarily to the profession of psychology as a whole. I have received emails, letters, and phone calls in the past two years from psychologists who are concerned about the unfair recognition of doctoral-level psychologists compared to their counterparts in medicine. Examples include the lack of fairness in media outlets regarding their refusal to use the title “Dr.” for psychologists and attempts by some segments of the American Medical Association (AMA) to do the same. It is reasonable and justifiable to have these concerns and desire to want to fight for equal professional footing. However, the overwhelming majority of physicians are board certified, whereas the current percentage of qualified psychologists who are board certified is approximately 4%. We will never receive the parity and fairness we seek regarding the media, law-making bodies, insurance carriers, our colleagues in other disciplines, or the public, unless we demonstrate an equal commitment to ensuring competence in our specialty practices.  What we do is important. The easing of human suffering, the improvement of lives and relationships, and improved mental and physical health outcomes require robust and competently delivered therapies. Board certification is a widely accepted means by which to increase confidence in the competence of those who provide such services.

Myth 5. ABPP is Only for Expert Practitioners Who Have Been Practicing for Years and Years.

Myth-busting facts. Individuals qualify as candidates for board certification if they have the requisite doctoral training and have an unrestricted license in the jurisdiction in which they practice. Although requisite professional experience varies with specialties, in most cases, this involves approximately three years postdoctoral training (including internship).

Myth 6. I Don’t See Patients in Day-to-Day Practice Much Anymore. More of My Work Involves Program Development, Supervision, or Development of Effective Treatments Through Psychology Research.

Myth-busting facts. I saved this one for last because I hear it so often in academic settings. I usually ask the person perpetuating this set of myths some of the following questions depending upon the particular version of the myth. “Imagine for a moment that you were a student seeking a professional doctoral training program (e.g., psychology, medicine, nursing, etc.), would you seek training from board-certified or non board-certified professionals in the specialty or discipline with which you are interested? If you were seeking treatment for a significant medical or physical problem, would you want to know that your provider was board-certified as competent and prepared to treat the problem for which you seek help?” And finally, “if you were supporting research to investigate a psychotherapy approach that was aimed at decreasing human suffering, would you want to know that the therapists in the study were competent?” Of course the answers to any (and all) of these questions is usually a resounding “yes.” Particularly in academic settings that train the next generation of professional psychologists or investigate the next wave of effective psychotherapy treatments, competence is a critical concept. For example, one clear bridge between research and practice is that those conducting clinical research trials in psychotherapy must necessarily be concerned with ensuring the competency of therapists in their studies as an essential aspect of their scientific integrity.

Reprinted with permission.