Dr. Martin Williams has twenty years experience as an expert witness on the standard of care in therapist-patient sex and other ethics matters involving psychologists, clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, and psychiatrists. In Therapist-Patient Sex Twenty Years Later: A View From the Courtroom, the psychology expert witness writes:
A conservative, risk management backlash against unethical psychotherapists has developed. Because of the increased number of lawsuits against psychotherapists over the past twenty years, malpractice insurance companies have led the charge to bring continuing education on ethics and risk-management to all psychotherapists. Numerous such courses are offered, some resulting in a discount on the therapist’s malpractice policy and some required for state license renewal. This represents a substantial change from the approach to ethics in the earlier era. Many psychotherapists of the Baby Boom generation, who trained in the nineteen sixties and seventies, had never even been exposed to a course on ethics, let alone risk management, as part of their professional training. The insurance companies support today’s continuing education courses, or even sponsor them themselves, in the hope that those who complete such courses will engage fewer of the behaviors that resulted in lawsuits and insurance payouts.
Risk management training is somewhat different from ethics education. Ethics, briefly, is about doing what is right. Risk management is about avoiding doing that which is risky-meaning that which is likely to provoke a lawsuit. Risky behavior by a psychotherapist is not necessarily unethical. Indeed, under certain circumstances, risky behavior may be the most ethical course of action. (See the recent book by Ken Pope and Melba Vasquez, “Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Practical Guide,” Jossey-Bass, 2007, for a more complete discussion of the interplay between ethics and risk management.)
Excerpted from National Psychologist, March 2008, with the author’s permission.