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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.

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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.


Getting Inside The Patient’s Mind

March 4, 2011

As a profession, medicine concerns itself with the treatment of individual human beings, but primarily through a scientific or “objective” lens.  What really counts is not so much a person’s feelings or attitudes (although we try to pay attention to the patient’s subjective experience), but instead the pathology that contributes to those feelings or that experience: the malignant lesion, the abnormal lab value, the broken bone, or the infected tissue.

In psychiatry, despite the impressive inroads of biology, pharmacology, molecular genetics into our field—and despite the bold predictions that accurate molecular diagnosis is right around the corner—the reverse is true, at least from the patient’s perspective.  Patients (generally) don’t care about which molecules are responsible for their depression or anxiety; they do know that they’re depressed or anxious and want help.  Psychiatry is getting ever closer to ignoring this essential reality.

Lately I’ve come across a few great reminders of this principle.  My colleagues over at Shrink Rap recently posted an article about working with patients who are struggling with problems that resemble those that the psychiatrist once experienced.  Indeed, a debate exists within the field as to whether providers should divulge details of their own personal experiences, or whether they should remain detached and objective.  Many psychiatrists see themselves in the latter group, simply offering themselves as a sounding board for the patient’s words and restricting their involvement to medications or other therapeutic interventions that have been planned and agreed to in advance.  This may, however, prevent them from sharing information that may be vital in helping the patient make great progress.

A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to this video produced by the Janssen pharmaceutical company (makers of Risperdal and Invega, two atypical antipsychotic medications).

The video purports to simulate the experience of a person experiencing psychotic symptoms.  While I can’t attest to its accuracy, it certainly is consistent with written accounts of psychotic experiences, and is (reassuringly!) compatible with what we screen for in the evaluation of a psychotic patient.  Almost like reading a narrative of someone with mental illness (like Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, or An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison), videos and vignettes like this one may help psychiatrists to understand more deeply the personal aspect of what we treat.

I also stumbled upon an editorial in the January 2011 issue of Schizophrenia Bulletin by John Strauss, a Yale psychiatrist, entitled “Subjectivity and Severe Psychiatric Disorders.” In it, he argues that in order to practice psychiatry as a “human science” we must pay as much attention to a patient’s subjective experience as we do to the symptoms they report or the signs we observe.  But he also points out that our research tools and our descriptors—the terms we use to describe the dimensions of a person’s disease state—fail to do this.

Strauss argues that, as difficult as it sounds, we must divorce ourselves from the objective scientific tradition that we value so highly, and employ different approaches to understand and experience the subjective phenomena that our patients encounter—essentially to develop a “second kind of knowledge” (the first being the textbook knowledge that all doctors obtain through their training) that is immensely valuable in understanding a patient’s suffering.  He encourages role-playing, journaling, and other experiential tools to help physicians relate to the qualia of a patient’s suffering.

It’s hard to quantify subjective experiences for purposes of insurance billing, or for standardized outcomes measurements like surveys or questionnaires, or for large clinical trials of new pharmaceutical agents.  And because these constitute the reality of today’s medical practice, it is hard for physicians to draw their attention to the subjective experience of patients.  Nevertheless, physicians—and particularly psychiatrists—should remind themselves every so often that they’re dealing with people, not diseases or symptoms, and to challenge themselves to know what that actually means.

By the same token, patients have a right to know that their thoughts and feelings are not just heard, but understood, by their providers.  While the degree of understanding will (obviously) not be precise, patients may truly benefit from a clinician who “knows” more than meets the eye.


GHB and Alcoholism: I’ll (Not) Drink To That

March 2, 2011

Alcoholism is a societal scourge, with alcohol dependence affecting nearly a quarter of the US population at some point in their lives, and many more with a history of abuse.  Treatment of this disorder is an enormous challenge, and motivating alcoholics to achieve controlled drinking or abstinence is difficult; even the most effective of several diverse approaches only show a moderate degree of success.

Because of the conventional paradigm that addiction is rooted in biology, it is not surprising that researchers worldwide are investigating biological treatments for alcoholism.  Antabuse, naltrexone (ReVia), and acamprosate (Campral) are three drugs that have been approved by the FDA for treatment of alcoholism, and while their efficacy is modest at best, scientists and drug companies have persisted in their search for a better pill.

An article in the January 2011 issue of the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism adds another potential name to this list:  GHB.  Gamma hydroxybutyrate, or GHB, also known as sodium oxybate and sold as “Xyrem”, may be effective in treating alcohol withdrawal and in preventing relapse, according to a recent literature review.

GHB is structurally similar to GABA, the main inhibitory transmitter in the brain; GHB was widely available in the 1980s as a nutritional supplement (to induce sleep or to increase muscle mass), but after it was linked to several reports of date rape (or, in the literature, “drug-facilitated sexual assault”) it was placed on Schedule I of the US Controlled Substances Act, severely limiting its use and availability.  Since 2000, GHB has occupied a “split” position on the controlled substances hierarchy:  the illicit drug GHB remains on Schedule I, while the compound “when used for medical purposes” is Schedule III.

In 2002, Jazz Pharmaceuticals obtained FDA approval for the use of GHB in complications of narcolepsy (interestingly, it was originally developed as an “orphan” drug because of the rarity of narcolepsy, so Jazz received government assistance to bring it to market).  GHB is marketed under the name Xyrem.  Xyrem has a fairly strong sedative effect, due to its binding to GABA receptors in the brain; low concentrations may also release dopamine, and it can also induce growth hormone release (hence its illicit use in the bodybuilding community).

GHB’s benefit in treating alcohol withdrawal may also stem from its ability to mimic GABA, since it is widely assumed that the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal (irritability, anxiety, insomnia, tremor) arise from a loss of GABA activity in the brain.  The mechanism by which it might decrease alcohol craving is not quite as clear, but the literature review shows that GHB improved “controlled drinking” and reduced the number of drinks consumed, compared to placebo.  It also beat naltrexone and Antabuse in maintenance of abstinence.

GHB has not yet been approved for use in alcoholics, and I don’t know whether Jazz intends to seek approval.  But should they do so, certain concerns arise.  First, should we be concerned about prescribing a drug that is known to be abused for the treatment of an addictive behavior?  The authors of the review point out that benzodiazepines (which can also be abused) have been used for years in the treatment of alcohol withdrawal, and that the tight controls that are placed upon prescribers of Xyrem by its manufacturer seems to have largely prevented its illicit use.

I’ve always been skeptical of the idea of treating one substance addiction with another substance, despite the efficacy of agents like methadone and Suboxone.  I also question the use of an abusable substance in patients who, by definition, abuse at least one substance (and likely others as well), and many of whom have a history of ignoring consequences of their actions.

Moreover, clinical trials require an enormous amount of money, energy, and time, and even if Xyrem is approved for alcoholism, the tight controls put on its use will also create a costly administrative burden for prescribers and users of the drug.  (Moreover, the drug is currently extremely expensive, about $20,000 a year without insurance coverage.)  I wonder whether the expense and time to bring Xyrem to market might be better spent in developing residential or psychosocial treatment programs for alcoholics, managing medical complications of alcohol abuse, creating educational programs on the dangers of alcoholism, or working to limit or control alcohol advertising to vulnerable groups.   Far be it from me to dictate how Jazz Pharmaceuticals spends its R&D dollars (and yes, I know their primary motivation for bringing Xyrem to market would not be their great compassion for alcoholics, but because that target market is overwhelmingly larger than the market for a narcolepsy drug), but I believe alcoholism—perhaps even more than other mental illnesses—deserves individualized treatment.

More effort should be devoted to understanding how patients’ drinking problems arise from their own unique histories, and treatment programs should be developed to address these.  True, another pill might help, but let’s make sure we (i.e., providers, patients, and those who pay for treatment) don’t become too enamored of the idea that an easy fix is around the corner, because it’s probably not.


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