Talk Is Cheap

October 9, 2011

I work part-time in a hospital psychiatry unit, overseeing residents and medical students on their inpatient psychiatry rotations.  They are responsible for three to six patients at any given time, directing and coordinating the patients’ care while they are admitted to our hospital.

To an outsider, this may seem like a generous ratio: one resident taking care of only 3-6 patients.  One would think that this should allow for over an hour of direct patient contact per day, resulting in truly “personalized” medicine.  But instead, the absolute opposite is true: sometimes doctors only see patients for minutes at a time, and develop only a limited understanding of patients for whom they are responsible.  I noticed this in my own residency training, when halfway through my first year I realized the unfortunate fact that even though I was “taking care” of patients and getting my work done satisfactorily, I couldn’t tell you whether my patients felt they were getting better, whether they appreciated my efforts, or whether they had entirely different needs that I had been ignoring.

In truth, much of the workload in a residency program (in any medical specialty) is related to non-patient-care concerns:  lectures, reading, research projects, faculty supervision, etc.  But even outside of the training environment, doctors spend less and less time with patients, creating a disturbing precedent for the future of medicine.  In psychiatry in particular, the shrinking “therapy hour” has received much attention, most recently in a New York Times front-page article (which I blogged about it here and here).  The responses to the article echoed a common (and growing) lament among most psychiatrists:  therapy has been replaced with symptom checklists, rapid-fire questioning, and knee-jerk prescribing.

In my case, I don’t mean be simply one more voice among the chorus of psychiatrists yearning for the “glory days” of psychiatry, where prolonged psychotherapy and hour-long visits were the norm.  I didn’t practice in those days, anyway.  Nevertheless, I do believe that we lose something important by distancing ourselves from our patients.

Consider the inpatient unit again.  My students and residents sometimes spend hours looking up background information, old charts, and lab results, calling family members and other providers, and discussing differential diagnosis and possible treatment plans, before ever seeing their patient.  While their efforts are laudable, the fact remains that a face-to-face interaction with a patient can be remarkably informative, sometimes even immediately diagnostic to the skilled eye.  In an era where we’re trying to reduce our reliance on expensive technology and wasteful tests, patient contact should be prioritized over the hours upon hours that trainees spend hunched over computer workstations.

In the outpatient setting, direct patient-care time has been largely replaced by “busy work” (writing notes; debugging EMRs; calling pharmacies to inquire about prescriptions; completing prior-authorization forms; and performing any number of “quality-control,” credentialing, or other mandatory “compliance” exercises required by our institutions).  Some of this is important, but at the same time, an extra ten or fifteen minutes with a patient may go a long way to determining that patient’s treatment goals (which may disagree with the doctor’s), improving their motivation for change, or addressing unresolved underlying issues– matters that may truly make a difference and cut long-term costs.

The future direction of psychiatry doesn’t look promising, as this vanishing emphasis on the patient’s words and deeds is likely to make treatment even less cost-effective.  For example, there is a growing effort to develop biomarkers for diagnosis of mental illness and to predict medication response.  In my opinion, the science is just not there yet (partly because the DSM is still a poor guide by which to make valid diagnoses… what are depression and schizophrenia anyway?).  And even if the biomarker strategy were a reliable one, there’s still nothing that could be learned in a $745+ blood test that couldn’t be uncovered in a good, thorough clinical examination by a talented diagnostician, not to mention the fact that the examination would also uncover a large amount of other information– and establish valuable rapport– which would likely improve the quality of care.

The blog “1boringoldman” recently featured a post called “Ask them about their lives…” in which a particularly illustrative case was discussed.  I’ll refer you there for the details, but I’ll repost the author’s summary comments here:

I fantasize an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry entitled “Ask them about their lives!” Psychiatrists give drugs. Therapists apply therapies. Who the hell interviews patients beyond logging in a symptom list? I’m being dead serious about that…

I share Mickey’s concern, as this is a vital question for the future of psychiatry.  Personally, I chose psychiatry over other branches of medicine because I enjoy talking to people, asking about their lives, and helping them develop goals and achieve their dreams.  I want to help them overcome the obstacles put in their way by catastrophic relationships, behavioral missteps, poor insight, harmful impulsivity, addiction, emotional dysregulation, and– yes– mental illness.

However, if I don’t have the opportunity to talk to my patients (still my most useful diagnostic and therapeutic tool), I must instead rely on other ways to explain their suffering:  a score on a symptom list, a lab value, or a diagnosis that’s been stuck on the patient’s chart over several years without anyone taking the time to ask whether it’s relevant.  Not only do our patients deserve more than that, they usually want more than that, too; the most common complaint I hear from a patient is that “Dr So-And-So didn’t listen to me, he just prescribed drugs.”

This is not the psychiatry of my forefathers.  This is neither Philippe Pinel’s “moral treatment,” Emil Kraepelin’s meticulous attention to symptoms and patterns thereof, nor Aaron Beck’s cognitive re-strategizing.  No, it’s the psychiatry of HMOs, Wall Street, and an over-medicalized society, and in this brave new world, the patient is nowhere to be found.

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CME, CE, and What Makes A Psychiatrist

May 25, 2011

Why do psychiatrists do what they do?  How— and why— is a psychiatrist different from a psychotherapist?  I believe that most psychiatrists entered this field wanting to understand the many ways to understand and to treat what’s “abnormal,” but have instead become caught up in (or brainwashed by?) the promises of modern-day psychopharmacology.  By doing so, we’ve found ourselves pigeonholed into a role in which we prescribe drugs while others provide the more interesting (and more rewarding) psychosocial interventions.

Exceptions certainly do exist.  But psychiatrists are rapidly narrowing their focus to medication management alone.  If we continue to do so, we’d better be darn sure that what we’re doing actually works.  If it doesn’t, we may be digging ourselves a hole from which it will be difficult—if not impossible—to emerge.

How did we get to this point?  I’m a (relatively) young psychiatrist, so I’ll admit I don’t have the historical perspective of some of my mentors.  But in my brief career, I’ve seen these influences:  training programs that emphasize psychopharmacology over psychotherapy; insurance companies that reimburse for medication visits but not for therapy; patients who demand medications as a quick fix to their problems (and who either can’t access, or don’t want, other therapeutic options); and treatment settings in which an MD is needed to prescribe drugs while the “real work” is done by others.

But there’s yet another factor underlying psychiatry’s increasing separation from other behavioral health disciplines:  Continuing Medical Education, or CME.

All health care professionals must engage in some sort of professional education or “lifelong learning” to maintain their licenses.  Doctors must complete CME credits.  PAs, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and others must also complete their own Continuing Education (CE) credits, and the topics that qualify for credit differ from one discipline to the next.

The pediatrician and blogger Claudia Gold, MD, recently wrote about a program on “Infant-Parent Mental Health,” a three-day workshop she attended, which explored “how early relationships shape the brain and influence healthy emotional development.”  She wrote that the program “left me well qualified to do the work I do,” but she couldn’t receive CME credits because they only offered credit for psychologists—not for doctors.

I had a similar experience several years ago.  During my psychiatry residency, I was invited to attend a “Summit for Clinical Excellence” in Monterey, sponsored by the Ben Franklin Institute.  The BFI offers these symposia several times a year; they’re 3- or 4-day long programs consisting of lectures, discussions, and workshops on advanced mental health topics such as addictions, eating disorders, relationship issues, personality disorders, trauma, ethics, etc.—in other words, areas which fall squarely under the domain of “mental health,” but which psychiatrists often don’t treat (mainly because there are no simple “medication solutions” for many of these problems).

Even though my residency program did not give me any days off for the event (nor did they provide any financial support), I rearranged my schedule and attended anyway.  It turned out to be one of the most memorable events of my training.  I got to meet (yes, literally meet, not just sit in an audience and listen to) influential figures in mental health like Helen Fisher, Harville Hendrix, Daniel Amen, Peter Whybrow, and Bill O’Hanlon.  And because most of my co-attendees were not physicians, the discussions were not about medications, but rather about how we can best work with our patients on a human and personal level.  Indeed, the lessons I learned there (and the professional connections I made) have turned out to be extraordinarily valuable in my everyday work.  (For a link to their upcoming summits, see this link.  Incidentally, I am not affiliated with the BFI in any way.)

Unfortunately, like Dr Gold, I didn’t receive any CME credits for this event either, even though my colleagues in other fields did get credit.  A few days ago, out of curiosity, I contacted BFI and inquired about their CME policy.  I was told that “the topic [of CME] comes up every few years, and we’ve thought about it,” but they’ve decided against it for two reasons.  First, there’s just not enough interest.  (I guess psychiatrists are too busy learning about drugs to take time to learn about people or ideas.)  Second, they said that the application process for CME accreditation is expensive and time-consuming (the application packet “is three inches thick”), and the content would require “expert review,” meaning that it would probably not meet criteria for “medical” CME because of its de-emphasis of medications.

To be fair, any doctor can attend a BFI Summit, just as anyone could have attended Dr Gold’s “Infant-Parent Mental Health” program.  And even though physicians don’t receive CME credits for these programs, there are many other simple (and free, even though much of it is Pharma-supported) ways to obtain CME.

At any rate, it’s important—and not just symbolically—to look at where doctors get their training.  I want to learn about non-pharmacological, “alternative” ways to treat my patients (and to treat patients who don’t fit into the simple DSM categories—which is, well, pretty much everyone).  But to do so, it would have to be on my own dime, and without CME credit.  On the other hand, those who do receive this training (and the credit) are, in my opinion, prepared to provide much better patient care than those of us who think primarily about drugs.

At the risk of launching a “turf war” with my colleagues in other behavioral health disciplines, I make the following proposal: if psychologists lobby for the privilege to prescribe medications (a position which—for the record—I support), then I also believe that psychiatrists should lobby their own professional bodies (and the Accreditation Council for CME [ACCME]) to broaden the scope of what counts as “psychiatric CME.”  Medications are not always the answer.  Similarly, neurobiology and genetics will not necessarily lead us to better therapeutics.  And even if they do, we still have to deal with patients—i.e., human beings—and that’s a skill we’re neither taught nor encouraged to use.  I think it’s time for that to change.


Dr. Quickfix, Redux

March 7, 2011

Last weekend’s NY Times article, which I wrote about in my last post, has, predictably, resulted in a deluge of responses from many observers.  The comments posted to the NYT “Well” blog (over 160 as of this writing) seem to be equally critical of Dr Levin and of our health care reimbursement system, which, according to the article, forced him to make the Faustian bargain to sacrifice good patient care in favor of a comfortable retirement.  Other bloggers and critics have used this as an opportunity to champion the talents and skills of psychologists, psychotherapists, and nurse practitioners, none of whom, according to the article, face the same financial pressures—or selfishness—of psychiatrists like Dr Levin.

While the above observations are largely valid (although one colleague pointed out that psychologists and NPs can have financial pressures too!), I chose to consider the patients’ point of view.  In my post, I pointed out that many patients seem to be satisfied with the rapid, seemingly slapdash approach of modern psychopharmacology.  I wrote how, in one of my clinic settings, a community mental health center, I see upwards of 20-30 patients a day, often for no more than 10-15 minutes every few months.  Although there are clear exceptions, many patients appreciate the attention I give them, and say they like me.  The same is also true for patients with “good insurance” or for those who pay out-of-pocket:  a 15-minute visit seems to work just fine for a surprising number of folks.

I remarked to a friend yesterday that maybe there are two types of patients:  those who want hour-long, intense therapy sessions on an ongoing basis (with or without medications), and those who are satisfied with quick, in-and-out visits and medication management alone.  My argument was that our culture has encouraged this latter approach in an unfortunate self-propagating feedback cycle:  Not only does our reimbursement process force doctors (and patients) to accept shorter sessions just to stay afloat, but our hyperactive, “manic” culture favors the quick visits, too; indeed, some patients just can’t keep seated in the therapist’s chair for more than ten minutes!

She responded, correctly, that I was being too simplistic.  And she’s right.  While there are certainly examples of the two populations I describe above, the vast majority of patients accept it because the only other option is no care at all.  (It’s like the 95% of people with health insurance who said during the health care reform debate that they were “satisfied” with their coverage; they said so because they feared the alternative.)  She pointed out that the majority of patients don’t know what good care looks like.  They don’t know what special skills a psychiatrist can bring to the table that a psychologist or other counselor cannot (and vice versa, for that matter).  They don’t know that 15 minutes is barely enough time to discuss the weather, much less reach a confident psychiatric diagnosis.  They don’t know that spending a little more money out of pocket for specialized therapy, coaching, acupuncture, Eastern meditation practice, a gym membership, or simply more face-time with a good doc, could result in treatment that is more inspiring and life-affirming than any antidepressant will ever be.

So while my colleagues all over the blogosphere whine about the loss of income wrought by the nasty HMOs and for-profit insurance companies (editorial comment: they are nasty) and the devolution of our once-noble profession into an army of pill pushers, I see this as a challenge to psychiatry.  We must make ourselves more relevant, and to do so we have to let patients know that what we can offer is much more than what they’re getting.  Patients should not settle for 10 minutes with a psychiatrist and a hastily written script. But they’ll only believe this if we can convince them otherwise.

It’s time for psychiatrists to think beyond medications, beyond the DSM, and beyond the office visit.  Psychiatrists need to make patients active participants in their care, and challenge them to become better people, not just receptacles for pills.  Psychiatrists also need to be doctors, and help patients to understand the physical basis of mental symptoms, how mental illness can disrupt physical homeostasis, and what our drugs do to our bodies.

Patients need to look at psychiatrists as true shepherds of the mind, soul, and body, and, in turn, the psychiatrist’s responsibility is to give them reason to do so.  It may cost a little more in terms of money and time, but in the long run it could be money well spent, for patients and for society.

Psychiatrists are highly educated professionals who entered this field not primarily to make money, but to help others.  If we can do this more effectively than we do now, the money will surely follow, and all will be better served.


Dr. Quickfix Will See You Now

March 5, 2011

A cover story by Gardiner Harris in Sunday’s New York Times spotlights the changes in modern psychiatry, from extensive, psychotherapy-based interaction to brief, medication-oriented “psychopharm” practice.  The shift has transpired over the last decade or longer; it was brilliantly described in T.R. Luhrmann’s 2000 book Of Two Minds, and has been explored ad nauseum in the psychiatric literature, countless blogs (including this one), and previously in the New York Times itself.

The article shares nothing new, particularly to anyone who has paid any attention to the rapid evolution of the psychiatric profession over the last ten years (or who has been a patient over the same period).  While the article does a nice job of detailing the effect this shift has had on Donald Levin, the psychiatrist profiled in the article, I believe it’s equally important to consider the effect it has had on patients, which, in my opinion, is significant.

First, I should point out that I have been fortunate to work in a variety of psychiatric settings.  I worked for years in a long-term residential setting, which afforded me the opportunity to engage with patients about much more than just transient symptoms culminating in a quick med adjustment.  I have also chosen to combine psychotherapy with medication management in my current practice (which is financially feasible—at least for now).

However, I have also worked in a psychiatric hospital setting, as well as a busy community mental health center.  Both have responded to the rapid changes in the health care reimbursement system by requiring shorter visits, more rushed appointments, and an emphasis on medications—because that’s what the system will pay for.  This is clearly the direction of modern psychiatry, as demonstrated in the Times article.

My concern is that when a patient comes to a clinic knowing that he’ll only have 10 or 15 minutes with a doctor, the significance of his complaints gets minimized.  He is led to believe that his personal struggles—which may in reality be substantial—only deserve a few minutes of the doctor’s time, or can be cured with a pill.  To be sure, it is common practice to refer patients to therapists when significant lifestyle or psychosocial issues may underlie their suffering (and if they’re lucky, insurance might pay for it), but when this happens, the visit with the doctor is even more rushed.

I could make an argument here for greater reimbursement for psychiatrists doing therapy, or even for prescribing privileges for psychologists (who provide the more comprehensive psychotherapy).  But what’s shocking to me is that patients often seem to be okay with this hurried, fragmented, disconnected care.

Quoting from the article (emphasis mine):

[The patient] said she likes Dr. Levin and feels that he listens to her.

Dr. Levin expressed some astonishment that his patients admire him as much as they do.

“The sad thing is that I’m very important to them, but I barely know them,” he said. “I feel shame about that, but that’s probably because I was trained in a different era.”

It is sad.  I’ve received the same sort of praise and positive feedback from a surprising number of patients, even when I feel that I’ve just barely scratched the surface of their distress (and might have even forgotten their names since their last visit!), and believe that I’m simply pacifying them with a prescription.  At times, calling myself a “psychiatrist” seems unfair, because I feel instead like a prescription dispenser with a medical school diploma on the wall.

And yet people tell me that they like me, just as they like Dr. Levin.  They believe I’m really helping them by listening to them for a few minutes, nodding my head, and giving a pill.  Are the pills really that effective?  (Here I think the answer is clearly no, because treatment failures are widespread in psychiatry, and many are even starting to question the studies that got these drugs approved in the first place.)  Or do my words—as brief as they may be—really have such healing power?

I’ve written about the placebo effect, which can be defined as either the ability of a substance to exert a much more potent effect than what would be anticipated, or as a person’s innate ability to heal oneself.  Perhaps what we’re seeing at work here is a different type of placebo effect—namely, the patient’s unconscious acceptance of this new way of doing things (i.e., spending less time trying to understand the origins of one’s suffering, and the belief that a pill will suffice) and, consequently, the efficacy of this type of ultra-rapid intervention, which goes against everything we were trained to do as psychiatrists and therapists.

In an era where a person’s deepest thoughts can be shared in a 140-character “tweet” or in a few lines on Facebook (and Charlie Sheen can be diagnosed in a five-minute Good Morning America interview), perhaps it’s not surprising that many Americans believe that depression, anxiety, mood swings, impulsivity, compulsions, addictions, eating disorders, personality disorders, and the rest of the gamut of human suffering can be treated in 12-minute office visits four months apart.

Either that, or health insurance and pharmaceutical companies have done a damn good job in training us that we’re much less complicated than we thought we were.


To Treat Depression, Just Give ‘Em What They Want

February 23, 2011

A doctor’s chief task is to determine the cause of a patient’s suffering and to develop a course of treatment.  In psychiatry, the task is no different: examine the patient, determine a diagnosis, and initiate treatment.  However, “treatment” comes in many forms, and what works for one patient may not work for another.  A good psychiatrist tries to figure out which approach is ideal for the patient in his office, rather than reflexively reaching for the prescription pad and the latest drug option.

How to determine what’s the best course of action for a patient?  Recent research suggests one potentially foolproof way:  Ask him.

A paper in this month’s Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics by Mergl and colleagues shows that patient preference (that is, whether the patient prefers medications or psychotherapy) predicts how effective a treatment will be.  In their study, patients who expressed a preference for medications at the beginning of treatment had a better response to Zoloft than to group therapy, while patients who preferred therapy showed the exact opposite response.

In an even larger study published in 2009 by James Kocsis and colleagues at Weill-Cornell in New York (comparing nefazodone, an antidepressant, with a cognitive therapy approach called CBASP), a similar result was obtained:  patients with chronic major depression who entered the study expressing a preference for drug treatment had higher remission rates when receiving medication than when receiving psychotherapy, and vice versa.

The numbers were quite shocking:

Patients who preferred medication:

Treatment received Remission rate Avg. depression score (HAM-D) at end of study (high score = more depressed)
Meds 45.5% 11.6
Therapy 22.2% 21.0

Patients who preferred therapy:

Treatment received Remission rate Avg. depression score (HAM-D) at end of study
Meds 7.7% 18.3
Therapy 50.0% 12.1

(original HAM-D scores were approximately 26-27 for all patients, constituting major depression, and patients in this study had been depressed for over two years)

Thus, if a depressed patient wanted therapy but got medications instead, their chances of “remitting” (ie, having a fully therapeutic response to nefazodone) were less than 1 in 12.  But if they did get therapy, those chances improved to 1 in 2.  Interestingly, patients who preferred therapy and got combination treatment (meds and therapy) actually did worse than with therapy alone (remission rate was only 38.9%), leading the authors to conclude that “few patients who stated a preference for psychotherapy benefited much from the addition of medication.”

It’s not surprising, at first glance, that people who “get what they want” do better.  After all, a depressed patient who insists on taking meds probably won’t get much better if he’s dragged into psychotherapy against his will, and the patient who believes that a weekly session with a therapist is exactly what she needs, will probably have some resistance to just getting a pill.

But then again, isn’t depression supposed to be a hard-wired biological illness?  Shouldn’t a medication have a more profound effect, regardless of whether the patient “wants” it or not?

Apparently not.  The fact that people responded to the treatment they preferred means one of two things.  There may be two different types of depression, one that’s biological and one that’s more behavioral or “exogenous,” and people just happen to choose the appropriate treatment for their type due to some predisposition or innate tendency (self-knowledge?).  Alternatively, the “biological” basis of depression is not all it’s cracked up to be.

One question raised by these results is, why don’t we listen more to our patients and give them what they say they want?  If half the people who want therapy actually get better with therapy, doesn’t that make it hard to justify meds for this population?  Conversely, when we talk about “treatment-resistant depression,” or “depression that doesn’t respond to antidepressants alone,” could it be that the people who don’t respond to pills are simply those who would rather engage in psychotherapy instead?

I believe the implications of these findings may be significant.  For one thing, insurers are becoming less likely to pay for therapy, while they spend more and more money on antidepressant medications.  These studies say that this is exactly what we don’t want to do for a large number of patients (and these patients are easy to identify—they’re the ones who tell us they don’t want meds!).  Furthermore, trials of new antidepressant treatments should separate out the self-described “medication responders” and “therapy responders” and determine how each group responds.  [Note:  in the large STAR*D trial, which evaluated "switching" strategies, patients were given the opportunity to switch from meds to therapy or from one med to a different one of their choosing, but there was no group of patients who didn't have the option to switch.]  If the “therapy responders” routinely fail to respond to drugs, we need to seriously revamp our biological theories of depression.  Its chemical basis may be something entirely different from how our current drugs are thought to work, or maybe depression isn’t “biological” at all in some people.  This will also keep us from wasting money and resources on treatments that are less likely to work.

While it’s often risky to ask a patient what he or she wants (and to give it to them), depression may be just the opportunity to engage the patient in a way that respects their desires.  These data show that the patient may know more than the doctor what “works” and what doesn’t, and maybe it’s time we pay closer attention.


When Does Treatment End?

February 5, 2011

When is it okay to discontinue psychiatric treatment?  Is a patient ever “cured” of a psychiatric illness?  It sounds like a straightforward question, but it’s also one that is rarely asked, at least by psychiatrists.

To be honest, I hadn’t really given it much thought myself, until recently.  A large proportion of my patients actually improve with treatment (thank goodness!), and sometimes I ask myself, “Does he need to see me anymore?”  And isn’t that the goal of medicine?  To cure someone?  To rehabilitate him?  To “fix” him?  To be able to say to someone, “Congratulations, you’re cured!”  Sure, I can decrease the frequency of his office visits because he seems “stable,” but why can’t I let go completely?

We don’t do that often enough in psychiatry, and I can’t figure out why.  The “bio-psycho-social” model of psychiatry, the three-tiered foundation on which modern psychiatric care is built (although not immune to criticism), incorporates psychological and social components, two factors which are often amenable to change, especially with a motivated patient.  Do we not believe that we can cause biological change, too?  And perhaps reach the point where we’ve corrected whatever biological defect we identified, and let our patient go forth and be happy, in the absence of psychiatric medication?  Or do we honestly believe that the biological defect is so tenacious, so permanent, that we must continue to medicate indefinitely?

To be sure, there are cases of chronic mental illness in which ongoing, life-long medication management is necessary to guarantee the safety and well-being of a patient.  There are also cases in which short-term treatment is the rule.  In my practice, for instance, I do not initiate treatment with a medication like a benzodiazepine or Suboxone without some discussion of how and when the medication will be discontinued—sort of an “exit strategy,” so to speak.

But there are countless other patients who reach a sort of therapeutic “plateau”:  they feel overwhelmingly better than they did when they first presented for care, they’ve “responded to treatment,” and while they may not have eliminated 100% of their symptoms or solved all of their presenting problems, they feel well enough that they can be trusted to move onward.  Is another six months on antidepressants really going to make a difference in this patient?  Is a psychostimulant really necessary now that this patient has developed new organization and study skills?  Has this patient adopted new ways to cope with his aggression or obsessiveness such that medications are no longer necessary?  These are the questions that we really ought to be asking more frequently than we do.

Most psychopharmacologists would argue that therapeutic success is not only the result of medication management, but, significantly, the justification for continuing with medication management. In other words, a patient achieves remission from depression because of the medication, not because of the steps he has taken to improve his lifestyle, his self-esteem, his relationships, etc.  (Or, to be more accurate, the medication permits him to make—and maintain—the lifestyle changes that helped to emerge from his illness.)  Stopping medication and discharging a patient is a breach of the therapeutic contract.  Aren’t we taught that relapse is a part of this disease?  Yes, it is, for some patients.  But how do we determine which ones?

Psychologists and psychotherapists receive extensive training in ending the therapeutic relationship with a client —a process they refer to as “termination.” A key component is determining whether a client is appropriate for termination, and whether the original treatment goals have been met.  The process of termination celebrates the success of the therapy and, symbolically and practically, awards the client with a new identity, granting him or her with the newfound ability—and responsibility—to face obstacles that initially seemed insurmountable.  Why we don’t challenge ourselves to do the same thing in psychiatry is a mystery to me.

The American Psychiatric Association recently published its revised treatment guidelines for major depression.  In the entire 100-page document, the section on “Discontinuation” is only one paragraph, on page 20.  It says nothing about when to discontinue, how to discontinue, or which patients are the best candidates for discontinuation.  Instead, it simply advises the doctor to inform the patient “of the potential for a depressive relapse and [establishing] a plan for seeking treatment in the event of recurrent symptoms.”  Good advice, but it says nothing about what constitutes success.

Perhaps we continue care indefinitely because we believe lifelong pharmacotherapy is essential to correct the abnormality that exists in the brain.  Unfortunately, with few exceptions, science really hasn’t been able to make that connection.  Perhaps we continue care because we don’t believe in our patients’ ability to maintain the gains they have achieved without our help.  This, too, is unfortunate, as it inherently denies the patient’s own capacity for improvement and change.

Whatever the reason, it’s time for our field to think seriously about how we “end” care.  Not to admit failure—on the contrary, to refocus our efforts on achieving a successful outcome for the patient while preserving the patient’s autonomy and independence whenever possible.  It’s respectful, responsible, and the right thing to do.


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