by San-Marié Aucamp – Research Psychologist


Private practice in psychology is usually associated with a psychologist, mainly clinical or counselling, seeing clients somewhere in a serene setting. In recent times, the practice of psychology has evolved and changed, and the traditional role of the psychologist has expanded. Despite this, people still think of psychologists in stereotypical ways and few people consider how private practice may revolve around community-based research. Operating a private practice in this context is very similar to operating a private practice in the traditional sense, but with a few differences. These differences are briefly highlighted below.

  1. It is all in a name

Although meeting similar criteria as a traditional private practice and managed according to the same principles, the business is mostly not to referred to as a private practice, but rather a consultancy. In most situations the psychologist will be referred to as the consultant, rather than as the psychologist. The reasons for this are based on society’s perceptions about the traditional role of a psychologist as a healer rather than a researcher facilitating processes.

  1. Who pays the bills?

In a traditional private practice, the client is usually responsible for paying for the interaction with the psychologist, and in some instances it is paid for by a medical aid. Usually, the psychologist sends out a large number of invoices consisting of relatively small amounts every month resulting in a predictable monthly income. There is a perception that having a private practice in a community setting would involve donations, sponsorships, fundraising and a fairly large volume of pro bono work. Whether this applies or not depends to a great extent on the activities that the psychologist is engaging in. Having a viable private practice when engaging in research-related activities within a community context requires a customer that is usually a corporate or a government entity. Invoicing consists of a small number of invoices made up of large amounts, and the monthly income is inconsistent.

  1. Clients come in different formats

Knowing who your client is, seems to be quite a simple matter. When conducting community-based research the matter becomes quite complicated with some ethical questions that the psychologist must clarify. When the activities are paid for by a corporate or government entity, it is easy to make the assumption that these entities are the clients. Although this is true, in this instance it must be considered that the psychologist has more than one client.  It must be kept in mind that the psychologist is interacting with a community, whether to do research, a community assessment, or engage in some other activity, and this community is also a client. This raises an ethical question: “Whose best interests should the psychologist have at heart? The community or the customer paying the psychologist?” The activities often take place in marginalised communities with the client wanting to execute a project in close proximity to the community that may have an impact on the lives of the community members. The psychologist is in an excellent position to act as the voice of the community and to represent the communities’ best interests, trying to insure that the community is not harmed. This may involve being directive with your corporate or government clients, guiding them on the most appropriate way forward from a social perspective and even sometimes disagreeing with them. The challenge is to remain an independent party, in service of all the client groups, rather than to become a pawn of your paying client.

  1. You may need to leave your office

A traditional private practice is situated at a set location and the clients go to the psychologist, with time keeping being of the essence. In a community setting there is seldom a set location and the psychologist usually goes to where the community is. Consultations take place in random locations, often in an informal manner. Time keeping is often not as strict as the psychologist needs to adjust to the local customs and programmes. Appointments can be cancelled on short notice, and one must be able to adapt to a fluid environment.

  1. Knowledge

When engaging in community-based research that is paid for by a corporate or government entity, having expertise in psychology is not enough. The psychologist is mostly part of a multi-disciplinary team, and some knowledge of the other disciplines involved is required. Where psychologists in private practice usually work with medical disciplines, community-based research requires working with a range of disciplines which may also include natural scientists, engineers and planning professionals. There is also a distinct socio-political dimension when working in South African communities. Having knowledge of other disciplines and community politics assists the psychologist in doing a more accurate assessment of the community and how proposed activities may impact on the communities. In addition, being the only social scientist in a room full of natural scientists or engineers (depending on the nature of the project) can be quite challenging. Has to be able to explain social sciences and the impact that their activities can have on communities. It is task of the psychologist to defend her findings and stand up for the communities that are going to be affected. Doing it on another scientists’ territory and in their language greatly enhances your chance of success.

Taking into consideration the impact that recent changes in terms of medical aid payments have on psychologists in private practice, the time might have come for psychologists to broaden their horizons and explore non-traditional forms of private practise. Psychologists possess a unique set of skills that can be applied in other contexts, still within their scopes of practice. Psychologists have the potential to contribute to the changing world in more than just the traditional way.

Psychologists possess a unique set of skills that can be applied in other contexts, still within their scopes of practice. Psychologists have the potential to contribute to the changing world in more than just the traditional way.

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