Feedback has long been considered a vital component of training in the health professions. Nonetheless, it remains difficult to enact the feedback process effectively. In part, this may be because, historically, feedback has been framed in the medical education literature as a unidirectional content-delivery process with a focus on ensuring the learner’s acceptance of the content. Thus, proposed solutions have been organized around mechanistic, educator-driven, and behavior-based best practices. Recently, some authors have begun to highlight the role of context and relationship in the feedback process, but no theoretical frameworks have yet been suggested for understanding or exploring this relational construction of feedback in medical education. The psychotherapeutic concept of the “therapeutic alliance” may be valuable in this regard.
In this article, the authors propose that by reorganizing constructions of feedback around an “educational alliance” framework, medical educators may be able to develop a more meaningful understanding of the context—and, in particular, the relationship—in which feedback functions. Use of this framework may also help to reorient discussions of the feedback process from effective delivery and acceptance to negotiation in the environment of a supportive educational relationship.
To explore and elaborate these issues and ideas, the authors review the medical education literature to excavate historical and evolving constructions of feedback in the field, review the origins of the therapeutic alliance and its demonstrated utility for psychotherapy practice, and consider implications regarding learners’ perceptions of the supervisory relationship as a significant influence on feedback acceptance in medical education settings.