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Management/supervision; Generic and cross-cutting issues

Key studies on management and supervision across psychosocial and medical treatments of problem drinking. Highlights that “Manners Matter”, focuses on staff recruitment – the critical missing link – asks what use assessment is without a way to act on the results, queries the ubiquitous stages of change model, and details the fascinating history of the most controversial issue in alcohol treatment: whether to insist dependent drinkers try for abstinence. See the rest of row 2 of the matrix for more on features common to psychosocial and medical treatments.


S Seminal studiesK Key studiesR ReviewsG Guidancemore Search for more studies

Links to other documents. Hover over for notes. Click to highlight passage referred to. Unfold extra text Unfold supplementary text

S Alcoholics can learn to moderate their drinking (1973). Not the first, but the most incendiary paper to challenge the orthodoxy that abstinence must be the only treatment goal for dependent drinkers. See also second- (1976) and third-year (1978) follow-up results. This refutation (1982) based on a 10-year follow-up was itself refuted (1984) by the original authors. For discussion click and scroll down to highlighted heading.

‘Skid-row’ alcoholic

Clinic manager transformed response of patients dismissed as intractably treatment-resistant.

S Organised caring transforms alcohol clinic (1970). Remarkable series of US studies from the late 1950s proved that fresh management can transform an alcohol clinic’s intake and attendance – in this case by listening to previously dismissed ‘skid-row alcoholics’, being responsive to their needs, and systematically yet caringly keeping in touch. See also a slide presentation which ends by focusing on the studies.

S The abstinent alcoholic (1962). Classic description of the patient who has sustained abstinence after treatment but is still unhappy, unfulfilled and/or nervously hanging on – in other words, not really ‘recovered’. They formed the majority of patients seen at US alcohol clinics in the 1950s who were not drinking at follow-up. For related discussion click and scroll down to highlighted heading.

S Relapse-preventing social skills of counsellors can be identified in advance (1981). US study at an inpatient alcohol unit found strong links between the interpersonal qualities and skills exhibited by counsellors in response to typical patient/family scenarios and how many of their patients later relapsed. Related study below. For discussion click and scroll down to highlighted heading.

K Identifying rapport-generating counsellors (2002). Responses to written counselling scenarios identified which counsellors would best generate retention-enhancing rapport at a Finnish outpatient alcohol clinic. Partial replication of US study above. Discussion in bite’s Issues section.

K First get the staffing right (2004). US study suggests that recruiting the ‘right’ clinicians who have not been trained in appropriate ways to relate to patients would be better than choosing the ‘wrong’ ones who have been, and the former gain most from training. Discussion in bite’s Issues section.

K Try walking in their shoes (2008). When senior staff role-played the process of becoming a new client (a ‘walk-through’) at their own US substance use service, the resulting enlightenment helped halve waiting times and extend retention. See also this extension (2012) to the programme and an account (2007; free source at time of writing) of the walk-through procedure. Walk-throughs are a key element in the NIATx quality improvement model; see document and web site listed below. For discussion click and scroll down to highlighted heading.

K “You cannot treat an empty chair” (2013; free source at the time of writing). Title is from a report of how 67 US substance use outpatient clinics used the NIATx quality improvement model to reduce ‘no-shows’ through reminder calls (had to be sensitively handled), cutting waiting times, increasing capacity (eg, extra hours), and psychosocial approaches to bolster engagement such as motivational interviewing. Related document listed above and web site below.

K Systematically link assessments to services (2005). In Philadelphia automatically linking problems identified at treatment intake to relevant local services transformed assessments from clinically redundant paperwork into a practical route to the ‘wrap-around’ care advocated to deepen and extend recovery. For discussion click and scroll down to highlighted heading.

R How to generate evidence-informed practice ([Australian] National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction, 2008). Though they found few studies on substance use treatment, reviewers extracted valuable lessons from health promotion and medical care services on how to implement research-based innovations to improve treatment practice.

R Care enough to be personal but also to be systematic and persistent (2004). In seemingly mundane tasks like reminding patients of appointments and checking how they are doing after they leave, individualised and welcoming communications characterise retention-enhancing services. Systematising these procedures is not the antithesis of being caring, but a sign that the service cares enough to make the most of every contact. For discussion click and scroll down to highlighted heading.

R Cycle of change model poor guide to intervention (2001). Its simplicity is beguiling, but can services trust Prochaska and DiClemente’s ubiquitous model to guide them in matching interventions to a client’s ‘stage of change’? This thorough but easy-reading review found little evidence to support this popular strategy. Since it was written not much has changed. For discussion click and scroll down to highlighted heading.

R Offer moderation as well as abstinence as a treatment goal (2013). Concludes that dependent drinkers can cut down, that treatments based on this goal are probably just as effective as abstinence-oriented approaches, and that allowing patients a choice improves outcomes. Discussion in bite’s Issues section.

R Tentative support for matching treatment to patient preferences (2016). The first review to evaluate shared decision-making and matching substance use treatment to patient preferences found some evidence that greater patient involvement in decisions has no negative impacts and can improve outcomes. For related discussion click and scroll down to highlighted heading.

R Involving former problem substance users in promoting recovery (2014). For such a widely implemented and widely supported adjunct to formal treatment, the revelation from this review is how little evidence there is for involving former substance users in promoting recovery from problems similar to those they had experienced – a lack which may simply reflect the paucity of adequate research. However, on balance the evidence we do have is positive. Related UK and US supervision guidelines below.

R G Train for skills not programmes (2010; free source at time of writing). “Shift the focus of dissemination efforts from manualized psychosocial interventions to specific skill sets … broadly applicable and easily learned by clinicians,” is a core recommendation in this thoughtful US essay on integrating evidence-based practices into real-world clinical settings. Also makes a stab at what those skills should be in order to target key therapeutic goals in addiction treatment.

G English inspectorate’s criteria for quality in substance use services ([English] Care Quality Commission (CQC), accessed 2020). Official inspector of health and social care services in England asks five key questions of specialist substance use services in the NHS and independent sectors, including “Is it well-led?”, assessed by questions such as “Is the culture centred on the needs and experience of people who use services?” More on what ‘well-led’ means in appendices to prior consultation. Listed below standards based on the CQC’s requirements.

G English drug services define their own quality standards (2016). From bodies representing the addictions treatment sector in England, standards developed after consultation and piloting with services. Designed to guide services in assessing how they support people into and through recovery and the quality of vital aspects of their organisations. Can act as a check list for managers as well as provider organisations and commissioners. Consists of: standards for non-residential services (2016); implementation guide (2016) for these standards; and standards for residential rehabilitation (2016). Based partly on the CQC’s requirements; see documents listed above.

G English drug services define their own quality standards (2016). From bodies representing the addictions treatment sector in England, standards developed after consultation and piloting with services. Designed to guide services in assessing how they support people into and through recovery and the quality of vital aspects of their organisations. At web page find also an implementation guide (2016) for these standards and standards for residential rehabilitation (2016).

G UK staff development toolkit ([English] National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, 2006). Recruitment, training and staff development, appraisals and supervision, exit interviews and more. For discussion click and scroll down to highlighted heading.

G Added value of employing nurses in English substance use services (Public Health England and Royal College of Nursing, 2017). Describes the many potential roles of nurses in alcohol and drug treatment in England to help commissioners and providers of specialist adult alcohol and drug treatment services recruit the right workforce to meet local needs.

G Managing peer supporters ([UK] Substance Misuse Skills Consortium, 2015). Guidance from (now no longer operational) government-supported skills body for the substance use sector on how to manage current and former problem substance users who support and mentor other users through and out of treatment. Related review above and US guidelines below.

G Assessing whether the workforce has the required knowledge, skills and ability (NHS Health Scotland, 2009). Desired competencies and assessing the training needs of Scotland’s substance use workforce at all levels, from specialists to generic workers who may deal with substance use only peripherally.

G Criteria for quality in substance use treatment in Scotland (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and Scottish Government, 2014). Developed to ensure anyone looking to address their problem drug and/or alcohol use receives high-quality treatment and support that assists long-term, sustained recovery and keeps them safe from harm. Can act as a quality-assurance checklist for service managers.

G Improving efficiency and capacity means more patients can be helped ([US] NIATx, accessed 2020). Web-based service supported by US government. Offers practical strategies to improve the management of substance use treatment services. Objectives include reducing waiting times and the number of ‘no-shows’ (see this example) and increasing admissions and retention (see this example).

G Managing non-residential programmes ([US] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2006). US expert consensus on running outpatient, counselling and day-care substance use programmes, including strategies to meet “the challenges facing executives and the opportunities for employing available resources and skills to meet program goals”.

G Clinical supervision and professional development of counsellors ([US] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2009). US expert consensus on supervision methods and models, including how these can address cultural, ethical and legal issues, and monitoring performance. Includes an implementation guide for administrators.

G US guide to matching type of treatment to the patient (American Society of Addiction Medicine, 2013). What the US professional body for addiction medicine society says are the world’s “most widely used and comprehensive set of guidelines for placement, continued stay and transfer/discharge of patients with addiction and co-occurring conditions”. Helps decide what intensity and setting of care to offer and when to stop or change.

G Supervising peer supporters (2017). US checklist and training curriculum for evaluating and developing competence to supervise (ex-)substance using peers to promote recovery among a service’s patients. Related review and UK guidelines above.

G Workforce development aid for managers ([Australian] National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction, 2005). Evidence-based strategies to address priority workforce development issues such as supervision, team building and performance appraisal, plus resources to help managers implement the strategies. Endorsed by the Australian government.

G Implementing change ([US] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2009). Guide for managers on how to assess an organisation’s capacity to identify priorities, implement changes, evaluate progress, and sustain effective programmes, and how to implement these programmes. Substantially draws on a broader review.

more Search for all relevant Effectiveness Bank analyses or for sub-topics go to the subject search page or hot topics on why some treatment services more effective than others, matching alcohol treatments to the patient, matching interventions to the client’s ‘stage of change’, and individualising treatment. See also a reading list from a leading US analyst intended to help treatment services develop recovery-oriented programmes, and a resource list from the UK Substance Misuse Skills Consortium to (among other topics) help managers recruit and supervise staff, manage organisational change, and foster effective team working.

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Links to other documents. Hover over for notes. Click to highlight passage referred to. Unfold extra text Unfold supplementary text

What is this cell about? The five-cell matrix row in which this cell is located focuses on generic processes common to treatment, whatever the setting or modality. Patients have to decide to get or accept help, find their way to treatment, decisions must be made about the objectives, form, intensity and duration of care, relationships forged, and attention paid to psychological problems and social circumstances which affect the chances of a sustained end to dependent substance use.

The current cell narrows in on how these processes are affected by the management functions of selecting, training and managing staff, and managing the intervention programme. In highly controlled studies, it may be possible to divorce the impact of interventions from the management of the service delivering them, but in everyday practice, whether interventions get adopted and adequately implemented, and whether practitioners can maintain recovery-generating attitudes and knowledge, depend on management and supervision. Compared to interventions, research on these issues is scarce, but also exciting and inspirational, because at this level whole organisations can be transformed from merely going through the motions into enthusiastic client-engagers.


Where should I start? With the truism that ‘Manners matter’ – the title of a series of reviews by Drug and Alcohol Findings not on what services do, but how they do it. Part one listed above dealt with seemingly mundane management tasks like managing waiting lists, setting up reminder systems for appointments, and checking on patients after they leave. In each case, research showed that individualised and welcoming communications characterise effective and retention-enhancing services. The overall conclusion was simple: “the human qualities which cement relationships outside treatment also do so within it”.

Managements and services which care enough about these qualities also care enough to be organised and persistent about embedding them in routine practice. They centre initial contacts on the patient’s priorities, provide (if need be, interim) help quickly, take responsibility for reminding patients they are looking forward to seeing them at their next appointment and if required help them get there, prepare the ground for keeping in touch after they leave, and then persistently and actively check how they are doing and if they need more help, at each stage showing that someone rather than an impersonal system is concerned about and wants to see them. One of the best examples was the transformation brought about at Massachusetts General Hospital’s alcohol clinic, documented in studies listed above and explored further in cell A2.


Highlighted study The review discussed and listed above ended with, “Perhaps the main lesson of the research is that there is nothing special about … how substance misuse patients react. Reflection on how we might react if we were in their shoes can predict much of what researchers have painstakingly set out to prove.” From cell B2 and general psychotherapy research we know that the therapist’s ability to think themselves into the shoes of the client (‘empathy’) is fundamental. Perhaps this is also true of the managers of those therapists, and that for them it is better actually to try on the client’s shoes and feel them pinch rather than risking the self-serving illusion that all is well in a service for which you are responsible.

Trying on those shoes was exactly what staff did (see listing above) at 327 US services, ‘walking through’ their service’s admissions and induction procedures as if they were a client. The process was required in the application procedure for a quality improvement programme, and the results were fed back to programme managers. An analysis of the ‘walk-throughs’ – which started with the first phone or other contact and extended to the early stages of treatment – showed that the role-players experienced: poor staff engagement and impersonal interactions; shortcomings in equipment, administrative procedures and premises; poorly communicated information; burdensome and repetitive processes and paperwork, including lengthy intake interviews focused not on the client’s needs, but those of the agency; and failure to provide for clients with complex lives and problems. Extended (document listed above) to another twelve US areas, walk-throughs by senior staff became the key tactic for the strand of the quality improvement programme listed above intended to identify service delivery problems and improve clinical procedures.

All three original articles in the entry listed above are freely available, the first two via the ‘alternative source’ link in the Effectiveness Bank analyses, part of the article reference towards the top. Also freely available is practical guidance (1 2) on how to do a walk-through.

These reports offer abundant evidence that as part of a broader improvement programme, leaving the office and ‘becoming’ a patient opens eyes to shortcomings previously invisible to management and paves the way for improved procedures, streamlining admissions and retaining patients for longer – why the tactic features so strongly in the US quality improvement resource listed above. But can you think of any circumstances in which it might be counterproductive? And wouldn’t it be better to systematically gather feedback on how real patients experience treatment procedures? What about true ‘mystery shopping’ – engaging an outsider to act the part of a client and to feed back the results. After all, in walk-throughs staff know what is happening and usually also know the staff doing the role plays and that they are not really patients. Look at the US guidance (1 2) on how to do a walk-through. Is this how you would do it at your service?

Issues to consider and discuss


Recruitment: the critical missing link Studies use existing staff or recruit their own before evaluation starts. Either way, recruitment lies outside the evaluation process – the missing link. Think of the clinical staff you have known. Did some seem good from the start, while others couldn’t hit the right note with patients, no matter how much they were trained and supervised? Research backs you up. We know from cell B2 that clinicians vary greatly in effectiveness. A seminal British study spotlighted interpersonal warmth and commitment to working with alcoholics. Qualities such as empathy, genuineness, respect, and an ability to communicate have also been associated with retention and drinking outcomes.

If such qualities are lacking, training can’t always fix the problem. Fixing them may take organisational commitment expressed through management, procedures and incentives, but it may also be a case of having employed the wrong people. Motivational interviewing is an empathic counselling style, the most influential in addiction treatment. This US study showed some clinicians ‘get it’ from the start and improve with training; others don’t, and still don’t get it as well after training as adept practitioners did before. Then look at this study borrowed from cell C4. It showed that applicants for alcohol counsellor positions can be screened for empathy and those who pass take less training. That study used audiotapes of sessions with simulated clients; others have used written client-therapist scenarios.

In respect of the core quality of accurate empathy, William Miller (of motivational interviewing fame) and colleague Theresa Moyers have shown that ratings made on the basis of session tapes before training in motivational interviewing were strongly related to how empathic the counsellors remained four months later. Given that “We know of no therapeutic approach where low empathy has been linked to better outcomes in any area of health care,” they argued that “It is both possible and ethically sensible to screen potential providers of addiction treatment services for skilfulness in accurate empathy as an important general factor impacting client outcomes.”

Look at chapter 4 (Recruitment and selection) of guidance for England. Does it recommend these sorts of assessments? What is the balance to be struck between assessing applicants for appropriate interpersonal skills, assessing for technical competence, and training in either or both?


What use is assessment … without some way to act on the results With admirable simplicity, a US study listed above developed a computerised index of local resources and keyed these in to the broad range of needs revealed by a substance use service’s assessments of patients. It transformed the assessments from redundant but required paperwork in to a practical route to the services seen today as important to holistic and sustainable recovery – and twice as many patients completed treatment. If you work in treatment, do you have such a system, is it easy to use, is it hard for counsellors to ignore, and is it used? If you have no such system, would it work in your service?

This is a rare study of the neglected assessment process – an unfortunate neglect, because research has backed up the common view that assessment is not a just a preparation for treatment, but its start, and the start of building a therapeutic alliance.


Should dependent drinkers always be advised to try for abstinence? Hardly a ‘bite’-sized issue, its centrality to alcohol dependence and its treatment makes it difficult to ignore but also demands extended coverage, so we offer a two-tier introduction. For a more bite-size chunk read just the paragraphs already showing below. For more, unfold Unfold supplementary text the supplementary text.

Not so long ago the issue was not just about whether patients should be advised to aim for abstinence, but whether they should be denied treatment until deterioration forced them to accept the need to stop drinking altogether and forever. The debates go back decades, but abstinence has recently returned to prominence as an essential component of influential visions of ‘recovery’. This is how we have summed up the evidence: “Treatment programmes for dependent drinkers should not be predicated on either abstinence or controlled drinking goals but offer both. Nor does the literature offer much support for requiring or imposing goals in the face of the patient’s wishes. In general it seems that (perhaps especially after a little time in treatment) patients themselves gravitate towards what for them are feasible and suitable goals, without services having to risk alienating them by insisting on a currently unfavoured goal.”

Another reason for not insisting on abstinence is that non-drinking does not always equate to ‘recovery’, a concept which directs us to value outcomes other than (non-)drinking which reflect the quality of life of the individual and their social integration. A classic paper from the 1960s reminds us that this can mean classifying some abstinent ex-patients as not really recovered; without their favourite sedative and the friends and social activities that went with it, most in this study were living an empty and/or unhappy life. However, nothing here is intended to deny that especially among the severely affected drinkers seen at treatment services, abstinence is a common, valued (free source at time of writing) and attainable goal.

Outcomes at 3 and 12 months for patients who started treatment aiming for abstinence or for other goals

You can explore the controlled drinking controversy by unfolding Unfold supplementary text the supplementary text, through this US account, through a British perspective (turn to chapter four of the book), and through the seminal US study listed above. Of greatest contemporary UK relevance are the findings of a major British study, which as a side issue investigated choice of treatment goal in psychosocial treatment. Bottom line ( chart) was that patients who did not choose abstinence as their initial treatment goal did about as well as those who did, and both sets of patients more often resolved their dependence while continuing to drink than by stopping altogether. The background notes to our analysis are, we think, particularly informative.

Armed with these sources, reflect on questions such as: Should very heavily dependent drinkers always be advised to try for abstinence? Should the goal-setting process model what we want patients to become – independent and in control of their lives, and by extension of their treatment objectives? Or accept that for the moment they are in no position to exercise control over so crucial an issue? Might their decision be an expression of their dependence rather than the best way to overcome it? How strongly should the clinician advocate for their choice? Is this in any event futile because the patient has the final word? What of less dependent drinkers and/or those with more supports in their lives? Would recommending abstinence drive them away from interventions? Or is at least a period without drink the best way to break any heavy-drinking habit? Are your answers based on an explicit or implicit understanding of the nature of alcohol dependence? Before you answer, consider unfolding the supplementary text Unfold supplementary text to learn more about the controlled drinking controversy; it’s a fascinating story.


Match interventions to the client’s ‘stage of change’? Prochaska and DiClemente’s ubiquitous ‘stage of change’ model seems to offer managers a scientific system staff can follow to decide how to work with patients, avoiding wasteful change attempts with those not yet ready to change, a rationale for instead nudging them to the next more receptive stage, and a way to recognise when someone is ready to commit to and make the changes needed to overcome their substance use problems. Implicitly or explicitly, in services across the UK this system is used to categorise patients and clarify how to efficiently promote progression to sustained recovery. Its simplicity is beguiling, but can it really be used to generate change by matching patients to interventions, or does it simply describe one type of change process?

Cycle of change

Analysed in an Effectiveness Bank review (listed above) and hot topic, the model portrays motivational transition as a fixed, segmented sequence leading from ‘No acknowledged problem’ through to ‘No problem now.’ In between are stages where change is pondered, prepared for, implemented and stabilised. Among its attractions is the feeling that one has gained insight in to something important and technical and scientifically valid, yet which accords with common sense understandings. For example, it seems self-evident that it is no use trying to close the deal on a change plan if the client has yet to see the need for change and that overcoming dependent substance use is no quick fix, but sequentially requires awareness, thought, preparation, implementation and stabilisation, each stage of which must be completed to provide a foundation on which the next stage can build with a chance of success.

The model amounts to a broad guide to what (not) to do with patients at different stages of change. If it truly gets to the heart of the change process, then interventions built on the model ought to improve on those which are not. It is at this crunch point, when it actively engages with change through treatment, that research support is almost entirely lacking. That is true not just of drug and alcohol problems and of smoking, but of therapy for psychological problems in general. Read our review and you will understand why the American Psychological Association could only say matching interventions to stage of change was “probably effective” – and even “probably” seems optimistic. The model has, however, been very widely applied, and in some other fields (promoting exercise seems an example) it is better supported.

Another problem for the model is posed by precipitous, unplanned transitions to abstinence which defy the requirement to pass through the stages. Unfold text Unfold supplementary text for more.

Despite its limitations, there may still be reasons why the cycle of change model remains valuable, though perhaps not in its intended role of helping match interventions to stage of change. Look at the last paragraph of the Effectiveness Bank review. The author, a cogent critic, nevertheless finds many ways in which the model might be a positive influence – a kind of benevolent fiction which gives hope to and motivates both worker and client. Is this enough? Or in the end, should we let science consign this popular prop to the ‘unproven’ shelf of history?

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