Legal Aspects of Professional Psychology

Professional psychology has many complexities that set it apart from other recognized branches of psychology. The intricacies of professional psychology make it fodder for legal consideration. The patients and clinicians have an obligation to one another to adhere to the guidelines set forth according to the American Psychological Association (heretofore known as APA) that protects both parties’ rights. In this paper, the legal aspects of professional psychology will be discussed in detail. The concepts of informed consent and psychological assessment/testing/diagnostics will be examined.

The effects of legislation and competency will also be discussed as it pertains to professional psychology. The principle of informed consent is an integral component of the foundation of legal and ethical practice in professional psychology. According to the Encyclopedia of Human Genome: “ Historically informed consent has its origins in two parallel strands of thought within moral philosophy and within law. Within moral philosophy, the concept of individual autonomy has become increasingly important during the last 250 years.

It has been realized that there is normally not sufficient justification to override the considered decisions of competent persons” (2003). Across the world, legal systems have traditional beliefs regarding the prohibition of the manipulation of an individual’s body without their consent. However, in recent years these prohibitions have been expanded to include intangible components of a person such as their personal information. This concept is bolstered by the focus on basic human rights that is founded in legal theory.

In an ideal situation people consenting to treatment or research as part of a psychological experience would be capable of making their own logical decisions about participation through the application of informed consent. If someone is found to be taking advantage of a person or group of people without the use of informed consent they may face stiff penalties in accordance with the governing laws of their jurisdiction which may result in the revocation of their professional license and/or imprisonment.

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For most people, the words informed consent brings to mind a piece of paper that one must sign in order to receive treatment or participate in some sort of study, but in actuality it is much more complicated. Informed consent involves supplying the participant or patient with all relevant information as it pertains to the study being conducted or treatment given. Secondly, the person delivering the information must ensure that the person receiving the information has a full and thorough understanding of what is being explained.

This would mean that the person making the decision to participate in research or receive treatment is capable of making such autonomous decisions of consent. It is essential to ensure that the person receiving the information is not being coerced in any fashion to protect their human and legal rights, whether it is the decision to accept treatment or to refuse. It is also important to note that once given, consent may be withdrawn at any time at the request of the participant or patient.

When obtaining informed consent it may be necessary to have the interested participant(s) undergo psychological assessment, testing and diagnosis to ascertain their suitability to receive treatment or participate in a study. However, one must be sure to conduct all of these practices fairly and indiscriminately so as not to produce biased or tainted results that violate and/or exploit the interested person(s) basic human rights. Clinicians should be impartial in their approach and avoid hasty generalizations when doing psychological assessments and testing, and especially when diagnosing patients.

For example, while it is important to consider one’s demographics and upbringing in the assessment, testing and diagnostic process, a clinician should not let this be the sole basis for drawing conclusions, especially if their personal views and perspectives are at odds with the information presented. If a practitioner is found to be unethical in his or her application of testing/assessment and diagnostic practice they run the risk of facing legal action. Perhaps the most important aspect of professional psychology is that of confidentiality in the therapeutic relationship. Confidentiality means that a clinician may not reveal any nformation given by a patient or discovered by a fellow clinician during the treatment of a patient.

Most Ethics Codes state that the information divulged to a clinician during the course of the patient-clinician working relationship is confidential to the highest degree and should not be taken lightly. The purpose of a clinician’s ethical duty to maintain patient confidentiality is to provide the patient with the means to feel free to produce candid disclosures of information to the practitioner with the knowledge that the he or she will uphold the confidential aspect of the information disclosed.

Full disclosure enables the practitioner to diagnose conditions and illnesses properly and to treat the patient(s) accordingly. In return for the patient’s honesty and trust, the physician is expected to not reveal confidential communications or information without the patient’s express consent unless required to reveal the information by law. Confidentiality is paramount in the therapeutic relationship because it builds trust between the clinician and the patient, thus providing the client with safe place to explore their issues with discretion.

The idea of confidentiality in professional psychology sets the tone for treatment. In the initial stages of treatment the clinician will establish this expectation with the patient so that all others aspects of the therapeutic relationship may evolve more smoothly. It is probable that the patient would not want to proceed with therapy without the promise of confidentiality. Legislative efforts of the federal government to ensure equality on laws mandating parity of mental health with physical health in terms of insurance coverage have been passed in 34 states and have been tremendously successful.

However, the outcomes are disparaging due to the fact that our nation has and continues to spend less on mental health and substance abuse after parity than it did before, with the estimated costs plummeting at least $10 billion in recent years. Additional studies have shown that parity legislation has done nothing to reverse the steady decrease in the incomes of practitioners in the mental health field. “The managed behavioral care companies, fearing the return of runaway costs, put in place more draconian hurdles to accessing behavioral health than exist for physical health.

Just as rent control results in housing shortages because landlords abandon their properties and new building is discouraged, parity is an excellent example of how economic “laws” can defy and circumvent legislation” (Cummings, 2006). Given the dismal state of the mental industry in terms of accessibility to resources and funding it is essential that practitioners exercise competency that may be proven to healthcare providers. In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on competency-based education, training, and credentialing in professional psychology.

Competency-based training models are being utilized across the world to ensure that psychology professionals are able to apply the knowledge that they receive through instruction to their everyday practice. Accreditation committees in the United States and Canada shifted towards competency-based approaches towards the end of the 20th century. As a result, the accreditation of professional psychology training and academic curriculums is centered mainly on the program’s capacity to illustrate the method and to what extent foundational competencies are created and nurtured within those seeking to enter the field.

Many organizations have acknowledged core, specialized, and foundational competencies as it pertains to professional psychology. Competence is recognized within a separate section in the 2002 modification to the APA “Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct”. This focus on competency makes professional psychology pliable and those within it capable of efficiency even in the face of changing standards. Professional psychology is a discipline that must remain flexible and able to adapt to the inevitable shifts in society.

However, those practicing within its guidelines and doctrines must ensure that they fulfill not only their professional obligation to their clients but also meet the requirements of the laws that govern society. Practitioners must be highly competent and able to meet the criteria of APA standards as it pertains to professional psychology. Staying abreast of the legal rights of patients and practitioners is the responsibility of the professionals in this field to remain relevant and ethical.

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