Six things divisions should know about guidelines

Division Services Office Director Sarah Jordan outlines important points about the creation of guidelines for division leaders.

Each year, divisions are asked to submit a report of their activities from the previous year. APA is interested in hearing about the important activities being done by the divisions (special projects, activities to increase diversity, activities for students, early career psychologists, etc.) and APA checks on areas of compliance with the bylaws, rules, policies and legal requirements. Section 3b of the annual report form asks divisions if they have been involved in the creation of guidelines and, if yes, whether they have followed the review procedures outlined in Association Rule 30-8: Standards and Guidelines. Sometimes a division sets out to create “guidelines” and at other times a division is surprised to find that the document it has created is actually “guidelines.” So what are guidelines?

How are “guidelines” defined by APA?

APA defines the term “guidelines” in Association Rule 30-8: “‘Guidelines’ include pronouncements, statements or declarations that suggest or recommend specific professional behavior, endeavor or conduct for psychologists or for individuals or organizations that work with psychologists. In contrast to standards, guidelines are aspirational in intent.”

APA has created a specific review process for guidelines. Why is that?

There are legal risks surrounding adoption of guidelines that arise from the effects guidelines may have both on individual psychologists and on those companies or individuals who work with psychologists. For example, because guidelines suggest specific behavior they may be used against psychologists in court or in other ways. Accordingly, it is important to assure that guidelines reflect reasonable and objective criteria that have broad support within the discipline. Both to assure that any risks to psychologists and others of non-compliance are appropriate and that APA is not exposed to undue liability in adopting guidelines, the process spelled out in Association Rule 30-8 calls for public comment and legal review, as well as review and action by APA’s Board of Directors and Council of Representatives. In this way the guidelines reflect the best thinking of the discipline and the interests of all those who participate in the guideline development process are protected to the extent reasonably possible.      

Why develop guidelines?

According to APA policy, guidelines are created to educate and to inform the practice of psychologists. They are also intended to stimulate debate and research. Guidelines are not to be promulgated as a means of establishing the identity of a particular group or specialty area of psychology; likewise, they are not to be created with the purpose of excluding any psychologist from practicing in a particular area.

Guidelines have been created to educate and inform psychologists in a wide variety of areas and work settings. Among them:

  • Education and Training Guidelines consist of recommendations for the education and training of psychologists at all levels and the preparation of those teaching psychology at the high school and undergraduate levels.
  • Professional Practice Guidelines consist of recommendations to professionals concerning their conduct and the issues to be considered in particular areas of clinical practice (e.g., assessment of and intervention with persons with disabilities, psychologists’ involvement in pharmacological treatment, electronic record keeping). Such guidelines may also address topics and populations within APA’s public interest activities (e.g., working with lesbian, gay and bisexual clients; multicultural education, training, research and organizational change). 

  • Clinical Practice Guidelines (formerly termed “treatment guidelines”) provide evidence-based recommendations for specific treatments or specific clinical procedures at the patient level. Clinical practice guidelines tend to be condition-specific (e.g., depression, PTSD, obesity) and are generally based on systematic reviews of the literature. 

  • Science Guidelines are concerned with the conduct of research and the applications of scientific knowledge. They may include, for example, guidelines for conduct of human and non-human research by scientists and students and guidelines related to testing and assessment practices.

Who should I talk to if my division is developing guidelines?

Proposed guidelines or other documents that have the effect of guidelines should be sent to Sarah Jordan in the Division Services Office. Contact should be made at the beginning of the development process. 

What resources are available to help a division create guidelines?

Along with APA’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, the following documents may be informative to a division developing guidelines:

Can a division by itself develop and adopt guidelines for APA?

No, divisions are asked to follow the policy established by APA in Association Rule 30-8 that leads to approval of guidelines by the APA Council of Representatives. This assures significant stakeholder input and proper legal review prior to approval as APA policy. There are many considerations when working on guidelines and early contact with APA Central Office staff is strongly recommended. It is also important to avoid conflicts between any statements and policies of a division and those of APA as a whole. Contact Sarah Jordan in the Division Services Office, who can connect you to those who can help.

You should know: the Policy and Planning Board is working on its 2013 annual report on the topic of guidelines. Look for the release of this important report in the July/August 2014 issue of the American Psychologist®.