Instant Analysis: URI Family Therapy Program using technology to aid clients

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KINGSTON, R.I. — October 22 2008 — In family therapy, it is important to realize that each case presents a unique set of resources and circumstances. Because different variables affect lives, a counselor cannot truly know ahead of time the best treatment for a client.

With this in mind, Jacqueline Sparks — a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Rhode Island — is exploring the use of a computer outcome system to produce real-time, client-generated data that helps counselors improve the effectiveness of family therapy. Using data gleaned from brief questionnaires during counseling sessions, clinicians can track client progress.

“This system has been used for research,” Sparks said. “We are applying it for use in real-world practice. This is very new to the family therapy field.”

Sparks, who has been at the forefront of this new approach, has been using it in her practice and teachings of family therapy for eight years. She and URI colleagues Jerome Adams, Tiffani Kisler and Dale Blumen will present their findings at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Annual Conference in Memphis, Tenn., which will be held from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2.

By entering client feedback into the computer outcome system, clinicians and clients can work together to compare the trajectories of change with those of other clients facing similar circumstances. This aids the clinician and client in setting a course of treatment.

According to Sparks’ research, clinicians often struggle to determine whether their clients are showing improvement during traditional treatment. Because of this, the desired results often are not reached.

“It is important for counselors to be accountable to their clients,” Sparks said. “With the instant feedback gained from the computer outcome system, we are more aware when red flags pop up for the clients during the therapy process.”

Feedback attained from the client allows the clinician to see the areas in which the client is improving. In this way, counseling can be adjusted appropriately to target specific areas, making sessions more effective.

In addition to improving the quality of treatment, the feedback system allows clients to take ownership of the process. By engaging the client more, Sparks said clients are more likely to reach their goals.

The client feedback process also significantly reduces session cancellations or client no-shows. With stronger participation, clients often need fewer counseling sessions to reach their goals, thus making the therapy more efficient while maintaining a high level of client satisfaction.

“Clients feel as though their voice matters in the process,” Sparks said. “We strive to make that a centerpiece of what we do. We want to instill a sense of personal empowerment in the client.”

To further develop the system, Sparks has completed research on a child-outcome scale that is specially tailored to children ages 6 through 12. She stated that the adult scale has been researched for use with adolescents.

“We want to include everybody in the process,” Sparks said. “You can gain an incredible amount of information from children.”

Research shows that clients choosing not to participate in the feedback system were three times more likely not to return for a second session. Those clients experienced significantly poorer outcomes than clients whose therapists used the system.

In addition to helping clients, the approach also helps the URI students in the family therapy program. Sparks said they become versed in how to utilize a computer outcome system to better assist clients in reaching their goals. The system also aids faculty with evaluation and supervision.

“With this system, we are teaching students not just to be competent, but more importantly, effective counselors.”