Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Panning for Gold: A Clinician's Guide to Using Research

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Panning for Gold: A Clinician's Guide to Using Research

Article excerpt

The gap between research and clinical practice is one of the key challenges facing family therapy. Clinicians often fail to incorporate research findings into their practice because they do not know how to search, evaluate, or apply research to their clinical work. The purpose of this article is to help clinicians become better consumers of research. This article explores the potential value of research to clinicians, as well as negative beliefs that clinicians may have about research. The article also describes how clinicians can use research to inform their clinical work, as well as potential challenges that can be encountered.

One issue facing the family therapy field is the gap between clinical research and clinical practice. Sprenkle (2003) has stated that "a major gap exists between research and practice in MFT, and the consequences of this gap are deleterious to the field" (p. 87). With the emergence of the Empirically Supported Treatment movement, which has placed an emphasis on using treatment models that have been empirically validated by outcome studies, science has increasingly become integrated with the actual delivery of therapy (Alexander, Sexton, & Robbins, 2002). There is now a substantial marriage and family therapy (MFT) outcome literature, with a number of MFT treatment approaches receiving empirical validation (Sexton, Alexander, & Mease, 2005; Sprenkle, 2002).

Despite the increase in the importance of research in MFT, many clinicians have been slow to embrace clinical research and use it to inform their clinical practices. Indeed, the majority of MFTs read few research articles from professional scholarly journals (Johnson, Sandberg, & Miller, 1999). There are two major reasons for clinicians' lack of interest in MFT research. Many clinicians believe that clinical research is irrelevant to practice (Lebow, 1988; Robinson, 1994), with obscure research questions, operational definitions, hypothesis testing, and statistical significance having little application to clinical work. They see little value in translating clinical research findings, usually done in highly controlled environments, to the complexities of actual clinical practice.

Many clinicians also find clinical research to be inaccessible and incomprehensible (Beutler, Williams, & Wakefield, 1993; Sprenkle, 2003). Much of the research is published in journals that are not available in the clinical offices of most practicing MFTs, and the majority of MFTs have limited access to university libraries that have professional clinical journals. In addition, many clinicians do not adequately understand clinical research methods and statistics (Heppner & Anderson, 1985; Sandberg, Johnson, Robila, & Miller, 2002), which makes reading research reports difficult and unrewarding. As the standards for high quality research methods in major professional journals continue to rise, reports of research studies will become more sophisticated and complex, making them increasingly difficult for most MFTs to understand and appreciate.

Despite the methodology gap between published clinical research and the average MFT, adding more classes in research methods and statistics is not necessarily the answer to helping clinicians find more satisfaction and appreciation in reading clinical research. A recent study of MFTs in three states found that the level of research training that MFTs received in graduate school was not related to the amount of reading of scholarly journals that they did after they had graduated and were practicing (Johnson et al., 1999). That is, MFTs who took several statistics and research methods courses, wrote a thesis or dissertation, and worked on a research project as a graduate student were no more likely than MFTs who had minimal research training to read clinical research articles as practicing therapists.

Consequently, although modifications are needed in MFT training curriculum to better integrate research and clinical training (Crane, Wampler, Sprenkle, Sandberg, & Hovestadt, 2002), simply adding more research and statistics classes to the curriculum will not narrow the gap between research and practice. …

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