The responsibilities of supervisors

Simon Milton, Professional Officer, HPCA

Supervisors play a key role in the training and assessment of the psychological competencies required to become a registered psychologist. The fact that only supervisors approved by the Psychology Board of Australia who have completed training in competency-based supervision may supervise provisional psychologists for registration is indicative of the vital role played by supervision. Before agreeing to supervise a provisional psychologist, supervisors should be aware of their ethical responsibilities.

The Australian Psychological Society’s (APS) Code of Ethics sets out what is deemed ethical professional conduct. Tellingly, it defines psychological service as any service provided by a psychologist to a client including supervision. Given this definition, it follows that the health, performance and conduct requirements established by both the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (NSW) and the APS Code of Ethics apply to a supervisor’s practice.

Recent Tribunal findings have highlighted the responsibilities of psychologists supervising provisional psychologists. At a fundamental level, the supervisor has a responsibility to monitor their supervisee’s professional competence and compliance with the National Law and with the Code. This is achieved by having a comprehensive understanding of the work of the supervisee through regular observation of the supervisee’s practice and closely reviewing the content of the supervisee’s clinical notes.

The supervisor should ensure that the supervisee practises within accepted professional standards, providing evidence-based assessments and interventions. Further, the supervisor should ensure that the supervisee does not practise beyond his or her competence. Although both these responsibilities also rest with the provisional psychologist as they are also a registered health practitioner, the supervisor’s knowledge and experience places them in the optimal position to assess both these requirements.

The supervisor is also best placed to assess whether a supervisee’s practice places the public at risk of harm due to a possible impairment. Although the supervisor should avoid any dual relationship and, therefore, should not clinically assess or provide a clinical intervention to the supervisee, where the supervisor has formed a reasonable belief that the supervisee’s impairment places the public at risk, a mandatory notification should be made to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.

Tribunals have been particularly critical of supervisors for failing to safeguard the public, particularly when they have not ensured that supervisees have completed appropriate risk assessments or made mandatory notifications to child protection agencies. Supervisors need to be aware that they have a responsibility to protect the supervisee’s clients from any reasonably foreseeable risk of harm from the supervisee’s actions.

Although these responsibilities may appear daunting, the use of evidence-based supervision practices and documenting both the occurrence and substance of the supervision provided will hold supervisors in good stead. Recognising that supervision is a psychological service is an excellent starting point.