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The American Psychological Association (APA) maintains an ethical code of conduct that all members must agree to follow, including student members. Officially called the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, it's usually referred to as the APA ethics code. Its guidelines govern the activities of psychologists in their professional roles. Violating the ethics code can result in sanctions or penalties that could include expulsion from the association.
APA Code of Ethics Vs. Law
The ethics code is not legally enforceable on its own. Rather, these are APA ethical guidelines to follow in addition to any laws that might apply to the practice of the profession and the regulations of the psychology board. In some cases, the ethics code may have more stringent policies than the laws. When that is the case, practitioners are expected to meet the higher standard of the ethics code.
Aspire to General Principles
There are five general principles – listed as A through E – in the APA code of ethics that are intended to inspire psychologists. Unlike the ethical standards, the general principles aren't applied as regulations that could be used to sanction or penalize those who fall short of them. They are intended to be goals.
Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence
While psychologists strive to benefit their patients and others with whom they work, they are also cautioned in the ethical principles to do no harm. By the very nature of their work, psychologists are affecting the lives of others, so they need to be sure they're doing that without diminishing the rights and welfare of anyone, including animal research subjects. They are specifically advised to be aware that their own physical and mental health can affect others.
Principle B: Fidelity and Responsibility
Psychologists must maintain a high level of trust in their professional relationships, both with patients and colleagues. In addition to establishing trust in their work with patients, psychologists are tasked with a high level of responsibility to their colleagues and the profession. They are advised to spend a portion of their time serving the profession without compensation or personal benefit.
Principle C: Integrity
Honesty is at the heart of the profession, and psychologists are warned against lying, cheating, stealing, fraud and misrepresenting facts. Recognizing that sometimes it may be necessary to be less than truthful to avoid doing harm, they are advised to consider the potential for harm against the benefits of being truthful and the need to re-establish trust afterward.
Principle D: Justice
All persons are entitled to fairness and equal treatment from the profession. However, being human, psychologists must recognize the limits of their knowledge and expertise as well as how their own biases and beliefs could affect their work and their ability to treat everyone fairly.
Principle E: Respect for People's Rights and Dignity
In determining how to preserve every person's rights and dignity, psychologists must be aware of and respect differences in people concerning "age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, and socioeconomic status." They must take care to not let their own biases or those of others affect their work.
Important Note on Summaries
The summaries of the ethics code are meant to provide simplified explanations but are not a substitute for reading the original document. Not every point can be included in the summaries. Also, the ethics code reiterates several points in every section. Therefore, these points will not be repeated in each summary:
- The importance of explaining upfront the purpose of treatment or research.
- Gaining and documenting informed consent from participants for treatments, recordings and release of data.
- Refraining from having sexual relations with students, direct reports or current/former patients or their families.
- Understanding what it means to maintain confidentiality and explaining that at the beginning of a patient relationship, including the limits of such confidentiality.
- Minimizing privacy intrusions by only writing down what is necessary and discussing with other professionals only elements that are necessary.
- Refraining from revealing information that could lead to the identification of a patient, whether consulting with colleagues or in their writings, lectures or other public forums.
- Avoiding conflicts of interest.
- Taking care to avoid harassment based on sex or human differences.
- Avoiding discrimination based on "age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or any basis proscribed by law."
- Ensuring accuracy and truthfulness in all statements, public or private.
When Ethical Issues Occur
The ethics code makes clear that psychologists must take great care to prevent ethical issues, but if they do occur, they must resolve ethical issues without delay. Section 1 gives examples of such issues, including:
- Learning that their work has been misused or misrepresented.
- When their ethical responsibilities conflict with laws or regulations.
- If any work they do or activities in which they participate for an organization with which they are affiliated is in conflict with the ethics code.
- Noticing and either resolving informally or reporting ethical violations by other psychologists.
- Cooperating with ethics committees.
- Refraining from discriminating against anyone who has complained about them.
Stay Within Competencies
Psychologists have areas in which they are well trained and knowledgeable and other areas they know little about. It's important that they stay within their areas of competency when treating patients or:
- Refer the patient to a psychologist who is competent in that area.
- Gain the needed competency through research, training or study.
In an emergency when no other psychologist with the competency is available, the psychologist may treat the patient rather than letting him go without help. However, once the emergency has passed or an appropriate psychologist becomes available, treatment should stop.
When psychologists need to delegate responsibility to an employee, assistant or other person, the psychologists should:
- Ensure there are no conflicts of interest or multiple relationships that could affect objectivity or lead to exploitation.
- Delegate only work the person can perform competently.
- Supervise the work to ensure it's done competently.
Psychologists should also make sure their own personal problems don't interfere with their competence by:
- Not undertaking work that could be compromised by their personal problems.
- Seeking professional help to ensure that their problems don't limit their competence.
- Stopping the work that could become compromised or performed incompetently.
Avoid Negative Human Relations
In the human relations section of the ethics code, it is stated that psychologists should be aware of negative consequences that could result from their actions and take care to avoid them in all work situations, including:
- Causing harm to those with whom they work.
- Physical or mental torture_,_ whether engaging in or facilitating it.
- Exploiting colleagues, assistants, students or patients in any way.
In 2016, the wording about avoiding harm was amended, and the point against torture was added to the ethics code.
Positive Human Relations to Follow
The human relations section of the ethics code also includes directives of positive steps psychologists should take when working with patients, colleagues and others:
- Exercise caution in multiple relationships – where the psychologist and patient have another type of relationship, such as knowing a relative or friends of friends – so the multiple relationship does not affect objectivity or outcomes and to resolve problems that occur before they cause harm.
- When working with organizations, explain which individuals will be involved, the scope of the work, how results will be used, who will have access to the information and the limits of confidentiality. Explain if law or the organization prohibits the psychologist from any of these steps.
- Devise a contingency plan for services to continue if the psychologist becomes unavailable due to illness, death, retirement, relocation or other circumstances.
Advertising, Statements and Media
According to the APA code of ethics, psychologists are expected to exercise ethical principles any time they speak to the public, answer questions from the media or advertise their services. Specifically, they are advised to:
- Clearly identify paid advertisements and ensure their truthfulness.
- Refrain from compensating in any way media persons who include in their news reports the psychologist's comments or information regarding her services.
- Not request testimonials from individuals who may be vulnerable to undue influence.
Integrity in Records and Fees
Maintaining and holding accurate records is important for use in possible future treatment, for justifying charges and to validate that all actions were done according to laws and regulations. Psychologists should:
- Store records with protection of confidentiality and privacy.
- Substitute code words for names when entering patient data into research or other databases.
- Plan how records will be transferred when the psychologist stops practicing.
- Not withhold records in an emergency only because payment hasn't been received.
Psychologists can expect to be fairly and promptly compensated. To act with integrity involving fees, they should:
- State fees and fee arrangements in advance of services.
- Address late payments with clients before using collection services.
- Barter for services (exchanging services in lieu of fees) is permissible only when it is clinically feasible and does not exploit either party.
- Base fees for referrals on the services provided, not as payment for the referral.
Education and Training Ethics
This section of the code of ethics refers to psychologists who are involved with planning, designing and/or teaching courses. Psychologists are advised to:
- Ensure that the material covered meets requirements for licensing, certification and the goals of the program.
- Maintain a current, accurate description of the program requirements and have it readily accessible to students.
- Provide an accurate syllabus and method of evaluation for each course.
- Not require students to reveal personal information about their relationships or past history unless this requirement is clearly stated in program materials, the information is needed to obtain assistance for the student, there is concern for the student's ability to complete the program or for the student's safety or the safety of others.
- Allow students to choose a therapist outside of the program when therapy is a course requirement and not permit the instructor to serve as the therapist.
Research and Publication
Many psychologists conduct research and need participants for their studies. Since the research involves mental health, however, care must be taken to protect the most vulnerable. The ethics code sets guidelines for research, such as:
- Clarify when research is on experimental treatments, how control and treatment groups are chosen, what treatment the control group will receive, alternatives for those who don’t want to participate or want to withdraw during the research period and any incentives, compensation or costs involved.
- Protect students from the negative effects of not participating and, if it is required for a course, offer them an alternative.
- Any inducements offered should not be of such high value that students feel coerced to participate, and services offered in exchange for participation should be clarified with risks and limitations explained.
- If the research includes deception, that should be revealed to participants as soon as possible, and deception should not include hiding negative possibilities such as pain.
- Debriefing should occur soon after research ends with conclusions and results given, and any harm that was done should be corrected quickly.
- Ensure that animals in the research are treated humanely.
Therapy and Assessments
When conducting individual, couples or family therapy, psychologists should follow these rules.
- If the therapist is a trainee, explain this and give the name of a supervisor.
- Consider a potential patient's welfare before taking on a client who is being treated elsewhere.
- End therapy when it's no longer needed or of benefit or if threatened by a patient and provide counseling or referral if appropriate.
When conducting assessments, psychologists should:
- First examine the patient or explain why examination isn't possible.
- Use assessment tools that are valid for the individual and his language.
- Consider the patient's circumstances that could be influential when interpreting results.
- Release test data to patients according to the law unless releasing data would be harmful to the patient.
- American Psychological Association: Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct
- American Psychological Association: Revision of Ethics Code Standard 3.04: Avoiding Harm
- American Psychological Association: Rules and Procedures
- American Psychological Association: Standard Titles with Numbers from the 1992 Ethics Code and 2002 Code
- American Psychological Association: About APA
Barbara Bean-Mellinger is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area who has written about careers and education for work.chron.com, workingmother.com, classroom.synonym.com and more. Barbara holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has won numerous awards for her writing.
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