Feature

For much of the world, 2009 may be remembered as a year best forgotten. But at APA, the successes of the past year have outweighed the challenges brought on by the recession, says 2009 APA President James H. Bray, PhD.

“2009 was a pivotal year in APA's history,” says Bray. He cites the approval of APA's first-ever strategic plan, the Presidential Summit on the Future of Psychology Practice and the launch of the newly redesigned APA Web site as just a few examples of the association's successes over the past year. These and other accomplishments are already paying dividends for APA's members, psychology as a whole and the general public.

These accomplishments better position psychology for the future, says Bray. “Our new strategic plan will help us to move forward in the 21st century,” he says. “And our historic summit helps us develop a plan for psychology practice.”

Among APA's most significant accomplishments over the past year are:

The strategic plan. APA's first strategic plan, approved by the Council of Representatives in August, sets three overarching goals: Expand psychology's role in advancing health objectives, increase recognition of psychology as a science and maximize organizational effectiveness. “When decisions have to be made about how to allocate limited resources, having a strategic plan helps with the decision-making process,” says APA Chief Executive Officer Norman B. Anderson, PhD.

Achieving the goals will not only help individual psychologists and the entire profession, but the public. “Unless we can infuse our science and our evidence-based practices within health care, the public isn't benefiting fully from psychology and is not receiving the best health care they could get,” Anderson says. “The same is true for science: The whole scientific enterprise is ultimately for the public good.”

The practice summit. The Presidential Summit on the Future of Psychology Practice brought psychologists and experts from economics, medicine and other fields together in San Antonio last May to begin crafting a new vision for psychology practitioners.

“This was a historic event,” says Randy Phelps, PhD, deputy executive director for professional practice in APA's Practice Directorate, who likens the summit to the Boulder and Vail conferences that revolutionized psychology's education and training models. “This won't be just another conference that produced a dusty report left on a shelf.”

Two major developments have already come about as a result of the summit. The first was the recognition that psychologists need to develop treatment guidelines, says Phelps. Although APA produces practice guidelines on such topics as child-custody evaluations and psychotherapy with gay, lesbian and bisexual patients, it has long rejected the idea of producing guidelines about the actual treatment of disorders.

The insurance industry representatives at the summit helped change APA's stance. They pointed out that since psychiatrists have produced the current mental health treatment guidelines, those guidelines emphasize the use of medication in treatment, Phelps says. As a result, funding, reimbursement and other issues are similarly focused on medication.

Thanks to those insights, APA has committed to the idea of producing treatment guidelines. A working group within the Practice Directorate is exploring ways to expedite the process. “We don't want to take three or four years to develop guidelines,” says Phelps.

A second win for psychology that emerged from the summit is a new alliance with nurses on the issue of prescribing privileges for psychologists.

In the past, nurses had not been supportive of psychologists prescribing. But when the American Nurses Association representative at the summit learned about the extensive training prescribing psychologists receive, there was an about-face that led to a meeting between the two organizations. “Now they're supportive and are going to actually help us in getting prescriptive authority,” says Bray.

Practitioners aren't the only ones who will feel the summit's impact, adds Phelps. The task force that's developing recommendations based on discussions at the summit also hopes psychology educators will “re-envision” training from the predoctoral to lifelong learning stages. That training must prepare psychologists to enter primary care and integrated-care settings if the profession is to capitalize on emerging opportunities, he says.

Psychology as STEM discipline. Psychological scientists are also hard at work, too, focusing their efforts on the strategic plan's goal of increasing recognition of psychology as a science. One major goal is to ensure that psychology is consistently included as a STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — discipline.

“The STEM rubric drives a lot of resource allocation decisions at the federal agencies and even in Congress,” says Steven Breckler, PhD, executive director of APA's Science Directorate. “The fact that psychology isn't always included as a STEM discipline means that psychological science is being denied access to a lot of resources that other disciplines get.”

Leaders at the National Science Foundation say they view psychology as a STEM discipline, he points out, but then do things like fail to include psychology in the list of disciplines eligible to apply for a scholarship program designed to attract students to science.

The 2009 Presidential Task Force on the Future of Psychological Science as a STEM Discipline — made up of prominent psychological scientists plus staff from APA's Science and Education Directorates — is exploring the reasons behind psychology's exclusion, developing arguments for its inclusion and devising an advocacy strategy. “We don't want to come across sounding like, 'You're throwing a great party over there, and we weren't invited,'” explains Breckler. Instead, he says, the task force will take a more constructive approach. “The focus will be on articulating the areas of societal concern that psychological science speaks to and why we as a country are the poorer for not embracing psychology as part of the STEM disciplines,” he says.

The failure to recognize psychology as a STEM discipline speaks to a broader problem, says Breckler: a lack of understanding among the public. Polling and focus group research APA commissioned in 2008 revealed that the public doesn't view psychology as a hard science, like biology or physics, and isn't aware of psychological science's contributions. Now APA is hoping to launch a new public education campaign to change that.

That campaign would help practitioners as well as scientists, Breckler adds. “The practice community really depends on the public's understanding that the services they're offering are based on a science,” he says.

Psychological science has already had a big win when it comes to influencing policymakers, adds Breckler. In August, APA released the long-anticipated report from its Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change. Drawing on decades of research about behavioral change from the individual to the policy level, the report outlines ways psychologists can help meet the challenges of climate change.

“When we would go to the Hill to insist that behavioral science and psychology really need to be at the table if we're talking about developing climate change policy, the response from lawmakers was, 'OK, tell us what you can do,'” says Breckler. “And we didn't have a document.”

In addition to positive media attention, says Breckler, the new report has been enthusiastically received on the Hill. Staff from the office of Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), a psychologist himself, “grabbed up” the report, says Breckler. Baird, who chairs the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology, has already introduced language for potential legislation that would create an office at the Department of Energy devoted to research on climate change's social and behavioral dimensions. Once the climate change debate begins in earnest, the Science Directorate plans to hold a congressional briefing based on the report.

Health-care reform. Although the final legislation hadn't yet emerged at press time, APA has already scored successes, says Ellen Garrison, PhD, senior policy adviser at APA.

One major accomplishment in 2009 was the recognition of psychology as a health profession and part of the health-care work force by the National Health Care Workforce Commission. “That's very important, because in health-care reform, we are trying to position psychology as a mental and behavioral health profession as well as a health profession in the broader context,” she explains. “Most of the leading causes of death in this country have very strong behavioral correlates. We as the science of behavior have much to contribute.” Psychology was also recognized as a key player, says Garrison. APA was invited to participate in meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill, for example.

APA's health-care reform work in 2009 also deepened and broadened its alliances with other organizations. Daniel E. Dawes, JD, the former senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Public Interest Directorate, led a working group of more than 100 organizations that was working to ensure that health-care reform includes a focus on health and health-care disparities, for instance. APA also rallied its own members via e-mailed health-care reform “broadcasts” and other means. An action alert about including psychology education and training provisions in a Senate bill, for example, prompted hundreds of members to call their senators.

2009 also saw the creation of a new APA health-care reform Web site at www.apa.org/health-reform. Aimed at APA members, policymakers and the public, the site outlines APA's eight health-care reform priorities, showcases psychological science about the mind/body connection and offers ways to get involved in the debate.

Web site relaunch. Capping off the year was the launch of APA's newly redesigned Web site in December. (See the special insert in this issue for details, as well as the “From the CEO” column on page 9.) “The Web is APA's most important public education tool,” says Rhea K. Farberman, executive director for public and member communications at APA. “We can reach more people via the Web than we could hope to reach any other way.”

In addition to providing the most credible source of psychological information, says Farberman, the new site will also help APA serve members better. Members can manage their membership, database and journal subscriptions, continuing-education activities and more in the “MyAPA” area, accessible via a single sign-on. There's also a powerful new search engine that will allow people to find what they are looking for more quickly and refine their search by year, publication type or author.

The site also organizes information into special sections for students, early career professionals and other groups. The student page, for example, features a searchable database of scholarships, grants and awards.

“Our goal is to make the APA site the place to go for psychology information on the Web,” says Farberman.


Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.