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Skin In The Game

April 8, 2012

We’ve all heard the saying “you get what you pay for.”  But in medicine, where the laws of economics don’t work like they do everywhere else, this maxim is essentially meaningless.  Thanks to our national health-insurance mess, some people pay very little (or nothing) out-of-pocket for a wide range of services, while others have to fork over huge sums of money for even the most basic of care.

Good arguments have been made for health insurance to become more like automobile or homeowners insurance.  Car insurance doesn’t cover oil changes and replacement tires, but it does pay for collisions and mishaps that may result if you don’t perform routine maintenance.  Homeowners insurance doesn’t pay the plumber, but might reimburse you for a flood that results from a blown valve on your water heater.

In medicine, we’ve never really seen this type of arrangement, apart from the occasional high-deductible plans and health savings accounts.  If you have a typical employer-sponsored health plan, not only do you pay little or nothing for your basic, routine care, but your insurance company has probably added even more services (massage, discounted gym memberships, “healthy eating” classes) in the name of preventive medicine and wellness.  (It’s almost as if your auto insurance paid for exactly what you’d do if you wanted to hang on to your car for 500,000 miles.)  When faced with this smorgasbord of free options, it’s easy to ignore the true underlying cost.  One way to reverse this trend is to ask for patients to put some “skin in the game.”

This might happen in Medicaid, the insurance plan for low-income persons.  California Governor Jerry Brown, for instance, proposed that patients receiving Medi-Cal (the California version of Medicaid) should pay higher co-pay amounts for care which is currently free (or nearly so).  A $5 co-payment for an office visit, or a $50 co-pay for an emergency room visit might sound hefty, but it’s a bargain—even for a poor family—if it means the difference between life and death… or even just sickness and health.

Unfortunately, California’s proposal was shot down in February by the Obama administration on legal grounds: the co-pays “are neither temporary nor targeted at a specific population.”  There are other legitimate questions, too, about its feasibility.  Would people forgo routine checkups or neglect to fill prescriptions to save a few dollars, only to cost the system more money down the road?  Would doctors and hospitals even bother to bill people (or send accounts to collections) for such low sums?  Is it fair to charge people money for what some people think is a right and should be free to all?

Without commenting on the moral and political arguments for or against this plan, I believe that this is a proposal worth testing—and psychiatry may be precisely the specialty in which it may have the greatest promise.

Psychiatric illnesses are unique among medical conditions.  Effective treatment involves more than just taking a pill or subjecting oneself to a biological intervention.  It involves the patient wanting to get better and believing in the path he or she is taking to achieve that outcome (even if it violates what the provider thinks is best).  Call it placebo effect, call it “transference,” call it insight, call it what you will—the psychological aspect of the patient’s “buying in” (pardon the pun) to treatment is an important part of successful psychiatric care, just as important—perhaps more so—as the biological effect of the drugs we prescribe.

Like it or not, part of that “wanting” and “believing” also involves “paying.”  Payment needn’t be extreme, but it should be enough to be noticeable.  Because only when someone has “skin in the game” does he or she feel motivated to change.  (Incidentally, this doesn’t have to be money, it could be one’s time, as well:  agreeing to attend an hour of weekly psychotherapy, going to self-help groups 2 or 3 times a week, or simply driving or taking the bus to the doctor’s office can mean a great deal for one’s recovery.)  It’s more than symbolic; it can mean a lot.

In my own life, I’ll admit, I took medical care for granted.  I was fortunate enough to be a healthy child, and had parents with good jobs that provided excellent health insurance.  It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I actually had to pay for medical care—even my co-payments seemed shocking, since I had never really had to pay anything before then.  Over the years, as I struggled with my own mental health needs (which were, unfortunately, not covered by my insurance), I had to pay ever-larger amounts out of my own pocket.  I honestly believe that this was a major contributor to my successful recovery—for starters, I wanted to get to a point where it didn’t make such a huge bite out of my bank account!

The absence of a “buy-in” is most stark precisely where Governor Brown wants to change it:  in Medicaid patients.  In the community clinics where I have worked, patients can visit the office with zero co-payment (and no penalties for no-shows).  This includes medication and therapy visits.  Prescriptions are often free as well; some patients take 4 or 5 (or more) medications—at zero out-of-pocket cost—which can set the government back hundreds of dollars a month.  At the same time, patients with no health insurance (or even with insurance, like me) can’t access the same drugs because of their prohibitive price tag or byzantine insurance restrictions.  It’s nowhere near a level playing field.

To make matters worse, patients on Medicaid generally tend to be more medically ill and, almost by definition, face significant environmental stressors that detrimentally affect their physical and mental well-being.  In these patients, we give psychiatric diagnoses far too liberally (often simply to give patients the opportunity to keep coming to see us, not because we truly believe there’s a diagnosable “mental illness”), and allow them to keep coming in—for free—to get various forms filled out and to refill medications that cost a fortune and don’t treat anything, perpetuating their dependence on an already overburdened health care system.  In fact, these patients would be much better served if we expected (and helped) them to obtain—and yes, even pay for—counseling or social-work assistance to overcome their environmental stressors, or measures to promote physical and mental wellness.

In the end, the solution seems like common sense.  When you own something—whether a home, an automobile, a major appliance, whatever—you tend to invest much more time and money in it than if you were just renting or borrowing.  The same could be said for your own health.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask people to pony up an investment—even a small one—in their psychological and physical well-being.  Not only does it make good fiscal sense, but the psychological effect of taking responsibility for one’s own health may result in even greater future returns on that investment.  For everyone.

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Did The APA Miss A Defining Moment?

April 1, 2012

Sometimes an organization or individual facing a potential public-relations disaster can use the incident as a way to send a powerful message, as well as change the way that organization or individual is perceived.   I wonder whether the American Psychiatric Association (APA) may have missed its opportunity to do exactly that.

Several weeks ago, the CBS news program 60 Minutes ran a story with the provocative argument that antidepressants are no better than placebo.  Reporter Lesley Stahl highlighted the work of Irving Kirsch, a psychologist who has studied the placebo effect for decades.  He has concluded that most, and maybe all, of the benefit of antidepressants can be attributed to placebo.  Simply put, they work because patients (and their doctors) expect them to work.

Since then, the psychiatric establishment has offered several counterarguments.  All have placed psychiatry squarely on the defensive.  One psychiatrist (Michael Thase), interviewed on the CBS program, defended antidepressants, arguing that Kirsch “is confusing the results of studies with what goes on in practice.”  Alan Schatzberg, past APA president and former Stanford chairman, said at a conference last weekend (where he spoke about “new antidepressants”) that the APA executive committee was “outraged” at the story, glibly remarking, “In this nation, if you can attack a psychiatrist, you win a medal.”  The leadership of the APA has mounted an aggressive defense, too.  Incoming APA president and Columbia chairman Jeffrey Lieberman called Kirsch “mistaken and confused, … ideologically based, [and] … just plain wrong.”  Similarly, current APA president John Oldham called the story “irresponsible and dangerous [and] … at odds with common clinical experience.”

These are indeed strong words.  But it raises one very important question:  who or what exactly are these spokesmen defending?  Patients?  Psychiatrists?  Drugs?  It would seem to me that the leadership of a professional medical organization should be defending good patient care, or at the very least, greater opportunities for its members to provide good patient care.  The arguments put forth by APA leadership, however, seem to be defending none of the above.  Instead, they seem to be defending antidepressants.

For the purposes of this post, I won’t weigh in on the question of whether antidepressants work or not.  It’s a complicated issue with no easy answer (we’ll offer some insight in the May issue of the Carlat Psychiatry Report).  However, let’s just assume that the general public now has good reason to believe that current antidepressants are essentially worthless, thanks to the 60 Minutes story (not to mention—just a few weeks earlier—a report on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” as well as a two-part series by Marcia Angell in the New York Review of Books last summer).  Justifiably or not, our patients will be skeptical of psychopharmacology going forward.  If we psychiatrists are hell-bent on defending antidepressants, we’d better have even stronger reasons for doing so than simply “we know they work.”

But why are psychiatrists defending antidepressants in the first place?  If anyone should be defending antidepressants, it should be the drug companies, not psychiatrists.  Why didn’t 60 Minutes interview a Lilly medical expert to explain how they did the initial studies of Prozac, or a Pfizer scientist to explain why patients should be put on Pristiq?  (Now that would have been fun!!)  I would have loved to hear Michael Thase—or anyone from the psychiatric establishment—say to Lesley Stahl:

“You know, Dr. Kirsch might just be onto something.  His research is telling us that maybe antidepressants really don’t work as well as we once thought.  As a result, we psychiatrists want drug companies to do better studies on their drugs before approval, and stop marketing their drugs so aggressively to us—and to our patients—until they can show us better data.  In the meantime we want to get paid to provide therapy along with—or instead of—medications, and we hope that the APA puts more of an emphasis on non-biological treatments for depression in the future.”

Wouldn’t that have been great?  For those of us (like me) who think the essence of depression is far more than faulty biology to be corrected with a pill, it would have been very refreshing to hear.  Moreover, it would help our field to reclaim some of the “territory” we’ve been abdicating to others (therapists, psychologists, social workers)—territory that may ultimately be shown to be more relevant for most patients than drugs.  (By the way, I don’t mean to drive a wedge between psychiatry and these other specialties, as I truly believe we can coexist and complement each other.  But as I wrote in my last post, psychiatry really needs to stand up for something, and this would have been a perfect opportunity to do exactly that.)

To his credit, Dr. Oldham wrote an editorial two weeks ago in Psychiatric News (the APA’s weekly newsletter) explaining that he was asked to contribute to the 60 Minutes piece, but CBS canceled his interview at the last minute.  He wrote a response but CBS refused to post it on its website (the official APA response can be found here).  Interestingly, he went on to acknowledge that “good care” (i.e., whatever works) is what our patients need, and also conceded that, at least for “milder forms of depression,” the “nonspecific [placebo] effect dwarfs the specific [drug] effect.”

I think the APA would have a pretty powerful argument if it emphasized this message (i.e., that the placebo effect might be much greater than we believe, and that we should study this more closely—maybe even harness it for the sake of our patients) over what sounds like a knee-jerk defense of drugs.  It’s a message that would demand better science, prioritize our patients’ well-being, and, perhaps even reduce treatment costs in the long run.  If, instead, we call “foul” on anyone who criticizes medications, not only do we send the message that we put our faith in only one form of therapy (out of many), but we also become de facto spokespersons for the pharmaceutical industry.  If the APA wants to change that perception among the general public, this would be a great place to start.


The Problem With Organized Psychiatry

March 27, 2012

Well, it happened again.  I attended yet another professional conference this weekend (specifically, the annual meeting of my regional psychiatric society), and—along with all the talks, exhibits, and networking opportunities—came the call I’ve heard over and over again in venues like this one:  We must get psychiatrists involved in organized medicine.  We must stand up for what’s important to our profession and make our voices heard!!

Is this just a way for the organization to make money?  One would be forgiven for drawing this conclusion.  Annual dues are not trivial: membership in the society costs up to $290 per person, and also requires APA membership, which ranges from $205 to $565 per year.  But setting the money aside, the society firmly believes that we must protect ourselves and our profession.  Furthermore, the best way to do so is to recruit as many members as possible, and encourage members to stand up for our interests.

This raises one important question:  what exactly are we standing up for?  I think most psychiatrists would agree that we’d like to keep our jobs, and we’d like to get paid well, too.  (Oh, and benefits would be nice.)  But that’s about all the common ground that comes to mind.  The fact that we work in so many different settings makes it impossible for us to speak as a single voice or even (gasp!) to unionize.

Consider the following:  the conference featured a panel discussion by five early-career psychiatrists:  an academic psychiatrist; a county mental health psychiatrist; a jail psychiatrist; an HMO psychiatrist; and a cash-only private-practice psychiatrist.  What might all of those psychiatrists have in common?  As it turns out, not much.  The HMO psychiatrist has a 9-to-5 job, a stable income, and extraordinary benefits, but a restricted range of services, a very limited medication formulary and not much flexibility in what she can provide.  The private-practice guy, on the other hand, can do (and charge) essentially whatever he wants (a lot, as it turns out); but he also has to pay his own overhead.  The county psychiatrist wants his patients to have access to additional services (therapy, case management, housing, vocational training, etc) that might be irrelevant—or wasteful—in other settings.  The academic psychiatrist is concerned about his ability to obtain research funding, to keep his inpatient unit afloat, and to satisfy his department chair.  The jail psychiatrist wants access to substance abuse treatment and other vital services, and to help inmates make the transition back into their community safely.

Even within a given practice setting, different psychiatrists might disagree on what they want:  Some might want to see more patients, while delegating services like psychotherapy and case management to other providers.  On the other hand, some might want to spend more time with fewer patients and to be paid to provide these services themselves.  Some might want a more generous medication formulary, while others might argue that the benefits of medication are too exaggerated and want patients to have access to other types of treatment.  Finally, some might lobby for greater access to pharmaceutical companies and the benefits they provide (samples, coupons, lectures, meals, etc), while others might argue that pharmaceutical promotion has corrupted our field.

For most of the history of modern medicine, doctors have had a hard time “organizing” because there has been no entity worth organizing against.  Today, we have some definite targets: the Affordable Care Act, big insurance companies, hospital employers, pharmacy benefits managers, state and local governments, malpractice attorneys, etc.  But not all doctors see those threats equally.  (Many, in fact, welcome the Affordable Care Act with open arms.)  So even though there are, for instance, several unanswered questions as to how the ACA (aka “Obamacare”) might change the health-care-delivery landscape, the ramifications are, in the eyes of most doctors, too far-removed from the day-to-day aspects of patient care for any of us to worry about.  Just like everything else in the above list, we shrug them off as nuisances—the costs of doing business—and try to devote attention to our patients instead of agitating for change.

In psychiatry, the conflicts are particularly  wide-ranging, and the stakes more poorly defined than elsewhere in medicine, making the targets of our discontent less clear.  One of the panelists put it best when she said: “there’s a lot of white noise in psychiatry.”  In other words, we really can’t figure out where we’re headed—or even where we want to head.  At one extreme, for instance, are those psychiatrists who argue (sometimes convincingly) that all psychiatry is a farce, that diagnoses are socially constructed entities with no external validity, and that “treatment” produces more harm than good.  At the other extreme are the DSM promoters and their ilk, arguing for greater access to effective treatment, the medicalization of human behavior, and the early recognition and treatment of mental illness—sometimes even before it develops.

Until we psychiatrists determine what we want the future of psychiatric care to look like, it will be difficult for us to jump on any common bandwagon.  In the meantime, the future of our field will be determined by those who do have a well-formed agenda and who can rally around a common goal.  At present, that includes the APA, insurance companies, Big Pharma, and government.  As for the rest of us, we’ll just pick up whatever scraps are left over, and “organize” after we’ve finished our charts, returned our calls, completed the prior authorizations, filed the disability paperwork, paid our bills, and said good-night to our kids.


The Well Person

March 21, 2012

What does it mean to be “normal”?  We’re all unique, aren’t we?  We differ from each other in so many ways.  So what does it mean to say someone is “normal,” while someone else has a “disorder”?

This is, of course, the age-old question of psychiatric diagnosis.  The authors of the DSM-5, in fact, are grappling with this very question right now.  Take grieving, for example.  As I and others have written, grieving is “normal,” although its duration and intensity vary from person to person.  At some point, a line may be crossed, beyond which a person’s grief is no longer adaptive but dangerous.  Where that line falls, however, cannot be determined by a book or by a committee.

Psychiatrists ought to know who’s healthy and who’s not.  After all, we call ourselves experts in “mental health,” don’t we?  Surprisingly, I don’t think we’re very good at this.  We are acutely sensitive to disorder but have trouble identifying wellness.  We can recognize patients’ difficulties in dealing with other people but are hard-pressed to describe healthy interpersonal skills.  We admit that someone might be able to live with auditory hallucinations but we still feel an urge to increase the antipsychotic dose when a patient says she still hears “those voices.”   We are quick to point out how a patient’s alcohol or marijuana use might be a problem, but we can’t describe how he might use these substances in moderation.  I could go on and on.

Part of the reason for this might lie in how we’re trained.  In medical school we learn basic psychopathology and drug mechanisms (and, by the way, there are no drugs whose mechanism “maintains normality”—they all fix something that’s broken).  We learn how to do a mental status exam, complete with full descriptions of the behavior of manic, psychotic, depressed, and anxious people—but not “normals.”  Then, in our postgraduate training, our early years are spent with the most ill patients—those in hospitals, locked facilities, or emergency settings.  It’s not until much later in one’s training that a psychiatrist gets to see relatively more functional individuals in an office or clinic.  But by that time, we’re already tuned in to deficits and symptoms, and not to personal strengths, abilities, or resilience-promoting factors.

In a recent discussion with a colleague about how psychiatrists might best serve a large population of patients (e.g., in a “medical home” model), I suggested  that perhaps each psychiatrist could be responsible for a handful of people (say, 300 or 400 individuals).  Our job would be to see each of these 300-400 people at least once in a year, regardless of whether they have psychiatric diagnosis or not.  Those who have emotional or psychiatric complaints or who have a clear mental illness could be seen more frequently; the others would get their annual checkup and their clean bill of (mental) health.  It would be sort of like your annual medical visit or a “well-baby visit” in pediatrics:  a way for a person to be seen by a doctor, implement preventive measures,  and undergo screening to make sure no significant problems go unaddressed.

Alas, this would never fly in psychiatry.  Why not?  Because we’re too accustomed to seeing illness.  We’re too quick to interpret “sadness” as “depression”; to interpret “anxiety” or “nerves” as a cue for a benzodiazepine prescription; or to interpret “inattention” or poor work/school performance as ADHD.  I’ve even experienced this myself.  It is difficult to tell a person “you’re really doing just fine; there’s no need for you to see me, but if you want to come back, just call.”  For one thing, in many settings, I wouldn’t get paid for the visit if I said this.  But another concern, of course, is the fear of missing something:  Maybe this person really is bipolar [or whatever] and if I don’t keep seeing him, there will be a bad outcome and I’ll be responsible.

There’s also the fact that psychiatry is not a primary care specialty:  insurance plans don’t pay for an annual “well-person visit” with the a psychiatrist.  Patients who come to a psychiatrist’s office are usually there for a reason.  Maybe the patient deliberately sought out the psychiatrist to ask for help.  Maybe their primary care provider saw something wrong and wanted the psychiatrist’s input.  In the former, telling the person he or she is “okay” risks losing their trust (“but I just know something’s wrong, doc!“).  In the latter, it risks losing a referral source or professional relationship.

So how do we fix this?  I think we psychiatrists need to spend more time learning what “normal” really is.  There are no classes or textbooks on “Normal Adults.”  For starters, we can remind ourselves that the “normal” people around whom we’ve been living our lives may in fact have features that we might otherwise see as a disorder.  Learning to accept these quirks, foibles, and idiosyncrasies may help us to accept them in our patients.

In terms of using the DSM, we need to become more willing to use the V71.09 code, which means, essentially, “No diagnosis or condition.”  Many psychiatrists don’t even know this code exists.  Instead, we give “NOS” diagnoses (“not otherwise specified”) or “rule-outs,” which eventually become de facto diagnoses because we never actually take the time to rule them out!  A V71.09 should be seen as a perfectly valid (and reimbursable) diagnosis—a statement that a person has, in fact, a clean bill of mental health.  Now we just need to figure out what that means.

It is said that when Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo how he sculpted David out of a marble slab, he replied: “I just removed the parts that weren’t David.”  In psychiatry, we spend too much time thinking about what’s not David and relentlessly chipping away.  We spend too little time thinking about the healthy figure that may already be standing right in front of our eyes.


Is The Criticism of DSM-5 Misguided? Part II

March 14, 2012

A few months ago, I wrote about how critics of the DSM-5 (led by Allen Frances, editor of the DSM-IV) might be barking up the wrong tree.  I argued that many of the problems the critics predict are not the fault of the book, but rather how people might use it.  Admittedly, this sounds a lot like the “guns don’t kill people, people do” argument against gun control (as one of my commenters pointed out), or a way for me to shift responsibility to someone else (as another commenter wrote).  But it’s a side of the issue that no one seems to be addressing.

The issue emerges again with the ongoing controversy over the “bereavement exclusion” in the DSM-IV.  Briefly, our current DSM says that grieving over a loved one does not constitute major depression (as long as it doesn’t last more than two months) and, as such, should not be treated.  However, some have argued that this exclusion should be removed in DSM-5.  According to Sidney Zisook, a UCSD psychiatrist, if we fail to recognize and treat clinical depression simply because it occurs in the two-month bereavement period, we do those people a “disservice.”  Likewise, David Kupfer, chair of the DSM-5 task force, defends the removal of the bereavement exclusion because “if patients … want help, they should not be prevented from getting [it] because somebody tells them that this is what everybody has when they have a loss.”

The NPR news program “Talk of the Nation” featured a discussion of this topic on Tuesday’s broadcast, but the guests and callers described the issue in a more nuanced (translation: “real-world”) fashion.  Michael Craig Miller, Editor of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, referred to the grieving process by saying: “The reality is that there is no firm line, and it is always a judgment call…. labels tend not to matter as much as the practical concern, that people shouldn’t feel a sense of shame.  If they feel they need some help to get through something, then they should ask for it.”  Bereavement and the need for treatment, therefore, is not a yes/no, either/or proposition, but something individually determined.

This sentiment was echoed in a February 19 editorial in Lancet by the psychiatrist/anthropologist Arthur Kleinman, who wrote that the experience of loss “is always framed by meanings and values, which themselves are affected by all sorts of things like one’s age, health, financial and work conditions, and what is happening in one’s life and in the wider world.”  Everyone seems to be saying pretty much the same thing:  people grieve in different ways, but those who are suffering should have access to treatment.

So why the controversy?  I can only surmise it’s because the critics of DSM-5 believe that mental health clinicians are unable to determine who needs help and, therefore, have to rely on a book to do so.  Listening to the arguments of Allen Frances et al, one would think that we have no ability to collaborate, empathize, and relate with our patients.  I think that attitude is objectionable to anyone who has made it his or her life’s work to treat the emotional suffering of others, and underestimates the effort that many of us devote to the people we serve.

But in some cases the critics are right.  Sometimes clinicians do get answers from the book, or from some senseless protocol (usually written by a non-clinician).  One caller to the NPR program said she was handed an antidepressant prescription upon her discharge from the hospital after a stillbirth at 8 months of pregnancy.  Was she grieving?  Absolutely.  Did she need the antidepressant?  No one even bothered to figure that out.  It’s like the clinicians who see “bipolar” in everyone who has anger problems; “PTSD” in everyone who was raised in a turbulent household; or “ADHD” in every child who does poorly in school.

If a clinician observes a symptom and makes a diagnosis simply on the basis of a checklist from a book, or from a single statement by a patient, and not on the basis of his or her full understanding, experience, and clinical assessment of that patient, then the clinician (and not the book) deserves to take full responsibility for any negative outcome of that treatment.  [And if this counts as acceptable practice, then we might as well fire all the psychiatrists and hire high-school interns—or computers!—at a mere fraction of the cost, because they could do this job just as well.]

Could the new DSM-5 be misused?  Yes.  Drug companies could (and probably will) exploit it to develop expensive and potentially harmful drugs.  Researchers will use it to design clinical trials on patients that, regrettably, may not resemble those in the “real world.”  Unskilled clinicians will use it to make imperfect diagnoses and give inappropriate labels to their patients.  Insurance companies will use the labels to approve or deny treatment.  Government agencies will use it to determine everything from who’s “disabled” to who gets access to special services in preschool.  And, of course, the American Psychiatric Association will use it as their largest revenue-generating tool, written by authors with extensive drug-industry ties.

To me, those are the places where critics should focus their rage.  But remember, to most good clinicians, it’s just a book—a field guide, helping us to identify potential concerns, and to guide future research into mental illness and its treatment.  What we choose to do with such information depends upon our clinical acumen and our relationship with our patients.  To assume that clinicians will blindly use it to slap the “depression” label and force antidepressants on anyone whose spouse or parent just died “because the book said so,” is insulting to those of us who actually care about our patients, and about what we do to improve their lives.


Two Psychiatries

March 12, 2012

A common—and ever-increasing—complaint of physicians is that so many variables interfere with our ability to diagnose and treat disease:  many patients have little or no access to preventive services; lots of people are uninsured; insurance plans routinely deny necessary care; drug formularies are needlessly restrictive; paperwork never ends; and the list goes on and on.  Beneath the frustration (and, perhaps, part of the source of it) is the fact that medical illness, for the most part, has absolutely nothing to do with these external burdens or socioeconomic inequalities.  Whether a patient is rich or poor, black or white, insured or uninsured—a disease is a disease, and everyone deserves the same care.

I’m not so sure whether the same can be said for psychiatry.  Over the last four years, I’ve spent at least part of my time working in community mental health (and have written about it here and here).  Before that, though—and for the majority of my training—I worked in a private, academic hospital setting.  I saw patients who had good health insurance, or who could pay for health care out of pocket.  I encountered very few restrictions in terms of access to medications or other services (including multiple types of psychotherapy, partial hospitalization programs, ECT, rTMS, clinical trials of new treatments, etc).  I was fortunate enough to see patients in specialty referral clinics, where I saw fascinating “textbook” cases of individuals who had failed to respond to years of intensive treatment.  It was exciting, stimulating, thought-provoking, and—for lack of a better word—academic.  (Perhaps it’s not surprising that this the environment in which textbooks, and the DSM, are written.)

When I started working in community psychiatry, I tried to approach patients with the same curiosity and to employ the same diagnostic strategies and treatment approach.  It didn’t take long for me to learn, however, that these patients had few of the resources I had taken for granted elsewhere.  For instance, psychotherapy was difficult to arrange, and I was not reimbursed for doing it myself.  Access to medications depended upon capricious, unpredictable (and illogical) formularies.  Patients found it difficult to get to regular appointments or to come up with the co-payment, not to mention pay the electric bill or deal with crime in their neighborhood.  It was often hard to obtain a coherent and reliable history, and records obtained from elsewhere were often spotty and unhelpful.

It all made for a very challenging place in which to practice what I (self-righteously) called “true” psychiatry.  But maybe community psychiatry needs to be redefined.  Maybe the social stressors encountered by community psych patients—not the least of which is substandard access to “quality” medical and psychiatric services—result in an entirely different type of mental distress, and demand an entirely different type of intervention.

(I should point out that I did see, at times, examples of the same sort of mental illness I saw in the private hospital, and which did respond to the same interventions that the textbooks predicted.  While this reaffirmed my hope in the validity of [at least some] mental illnesses, this was a small fraction of the patients I saw.)

Should we alter our perceptions and definitions of illness—and of “psychiatry” itself—in public mental health?  Given the obstacles found in community psychiatry settings (absurdly brief appointment times; limited psychotherapy; poor prescription drug coverage; high rates of nonadherence and substance abuse; reliance on ERs for non-emergency care, often resulting in complicated medication regimens, like dangerous combinations of narcotics and benzodiazepines), should we take an entirely different approach?  Does it even make sense to diagnose the same disorders—not to mention put someone on “disability” for these disorders—when there are so many confounding factors involved?

One of my colleagues suggested: just give everyone an “adjustment disorder” diagnosis until you figure everything out.  Good idea, but you won’t get paid for diagnosing “adjustment disorder.”  So a more “severe” diagnosis must be given, followed closely thereafter by a medication (because many systems won’t let a psychiatrist continue seeing a patient unless a drug is prescribed).  Thus, in a matter of one or two office visits (totaling less than an hour in most cases), a Medicaid or uninsured patient might end up with a major Axis I diagnosis and medication(s), while the dozens of stressors that may have contributed to the office visit in the first place go unattended.

Can this change?  I sure hope so.  I firmly believe that everyone deserves access to mental health care.  (I must also point out that questionable diagnoses and inappropriate medication regimens can be found in any demographic.)  But we psychiatrists who work in community settings must not delude ourselves into thinking that what’s written in the textbooks or tested on our Board exams always holds true for the patients we see.  It’s almost as if we’re practicing a “different psychiatry,” one that requires its own diagnostic system, different criteria for “disability” determinations, a different philosophy of “psychotherapy,” and where medications should be used much more conservatively.  (It might also help to perform clinical trials with subjects representative of those in community psychiatry, but due to their complexity, this is highly unlikely).

Fortunately, a new emphasis on the concept of “recovery” is taking hold in many community mental health settings.  This involves patient empowerment, self-direction, and peer support, rather than a narrow focus on diagnosis and treatment.  For better or for worse, such an approach relies less on the psychiatrist and more on peers and the patient him- or herself.  It also just seems much more rational, emphasizing what patients want and what helps them to succeed.

Whether psychiatrists—and community mental health as a whole—are able to follow this trend remains to be seen.  Unless we do, however, I fear that we may continue to mislead ourselves into believing that we’re doing good, when in fact we’re perpetuating a cycle of invalid diagnoses, potentially harmful treatment, and, worst of all, over-reliance on a system designed for a distinctly different type of “care” than what these individuals need and deserve.


How To Think Like A Psychiatrist

March 4, 2012

The cornerstone of any medical intervention is a sound diagnosis.  Accurate diagnosis guides the proper treatment, while an incorrect diagnosis might subject a patient to unnecessary procedures or excessive pharmacotherapy, and it may further obscure the patient’s true underlying condition.  This is true for all medical specialties—including psychiatry.  It behooves us, then, to examine the practice of clinical decision-making, how we do it, and where we might go wrong, particularly in the area of psychiatric diagnosis.

According to Pat Croskerry, a physician at Dalhousie University in Canada, the foundation of clinical cognition the “dual process model,” first described by the Greek philosophers (and reviewed here).  This model proposes that people solve problems using one of two “processes”:  Type 1 processes involve intuition and are largely automatic, fast, and unconscious (e.g., recognizing a friend’s face).  Type 2 processes are more deliberate, analytical, and systematic (e.g., planning the best route for an upcoming trip).  Doctors use both types when making a diagnosis, but the relative emphasis varies with the setting.  In the ED, quick action based on pattern recognition (i.e., Type 1 process) is crucial.  Sometimes, however, it may be wrong, particularly if other conditions aren’t evaluated and ruled out (i.e., Type 2 process).  For instance, a patient with flank pain, nausea, vomiting, and hematuria demonstrates the “pattern” of a kidney stone (common), but may in fact have a dissecting aortic aneurysm (uncommon).

This model is valuable for understanding how we arrive at psychiatric diagnoses (the above figure is from a 2009 article by Croskerry).  When evaluating a patient for the first time, a psychiatrist often looks at “the big picture”:  Does this person appear to have a mood disorder, psychosis, anxiety, a personality disorder?  Have I seen this type of patient before?  What’s my general impression of this person?  In other words, the assessment relies heavily on Type 1 processes, using heuristics and “Gestalt” impressions.  But Type 2 processes are also important.  We must inquire about specific symptoms, treatment history, social background; we might order tests or review old records, which may change our initial perception.

Sound clinical decision-making, therefore, requires both processes.  Unfortunately, these are highly prone to error.  In fact, Croskerry identifies at least 40 cognitive biases, which occur when the processes are not adapted for the specific task at hand.  For instance, we tend to use Type 1 processes more frequently than we should.  Many psychiatrists, particularly those seeing a large volume of patients for short periods of time, often see patterns earlier than is warranted, and rush to diagnoses without fully considering all possibilities.  In other words, they fall victim to what psychologist Keith Stanovich calls “dysrationalia,” or the inability to think or act rationally despite adequate intelligence.  In the dual process model, dysrationalia can “override” Type 2 processes (“I don’t need to do a complete social history, I just know this patient has major depression”), leading to diagnostic failure.

Croskerry calls this the “cognitive miser” function: we rely on processes that consume fewer cognitive resources because we’re cognitively lazy.  The alternative would be to switch to a Type 2 process—a more detailed evaluation, using deductive, analytic reasoning.  But this takes great effort and time.  Moreover, when a psychiatrist switches to a “Type 2” mode, he or she asks questions are nonspecific in nature (largely owing to the unreliability of some DSM-IV diagnoses), or questions that confirm the initial “Type 1” hunch.  In other words, we end up finding we expect to find.

The contrast between Type 1 and Type 2 processes is most apparent when we observe people operating at either end of the spectrum.  Some psychiatrists see patterns in every patient (e.g., “I could tell he was bipolar as soon as he walked into my office”—a classic error called the representativeness heuristic), even though they rarely ask about specific symptoms, let alone test alternate hypotheses.  On the other hand, medical students and young clinicians often work exclusively in Type 2; they ask very thorough questions, covering every conceivable alternative, and every symptom in the DSM-IV (even irrelevant ones).  As a result, they get frustrated when they can’t determine a precise diagnosis or, alternately, they come up with a diagnosis that might “fit” the data but completely miss the mark regarding the underlying essence of the patient’s suffering.

Croskerry writes that the most accurate clinical decision-making occurs when a physician can switch between Type 1 and Type 2 processes  as needed, a process called metacognition.  Metacognition requires a certain degree of humility, a willingness to re-examine one’s decisions in light of new information.  It also demands that the doctor be able to recognize when he or she is not performing well and to be willing to self-monitor and self-criticize.  To do this, Croskerry recommends that we develop “cognitive forcing strategies,” deliberate interventions that force us to think more consciously and deliberately about the problem at hand.  This may help us to be more accurate in our assessments:  in other words, to see both the trees for the forest, and the forest for the trees.

This could be a hard sell.  Doctors can be a stubborn bunch.  Clinicians who insist on practicing Type 2,  “checklist”-style medicine (e.g., in a clinical trial) may be unwilling to consider the larger context in which specific symptoms arise, or they may not have sufficient understanding of that context to see how it might impact a patient.  On the other hand, clinicians who rush to judgment based on first impressions (a Type 1 process) may be annoyed by any suggestion that they should slow down and be more thorough or methodical.  Not to mention the fact that being more thorough takes more time. And as we all know, time is money.

I believe that all psychiatrists should heed the dual-process model and ask how it influences their practice.  Are you too quick to label and diagnose, owing to your “dysrational” (Type 1) impulses?  On the other hand, if you use established diagnostic criteria (Type 2), are you measuring anything useful?  Should you use a cognitive forcing strategy to avoid over-reliance on one type of decision-making?  If you continue to rely on pattern recognition (Type 1 process), then what other data (Type 2) should you collect?  Treatment history?  A questionnaire?  Biomarkers?  A comprehensive assessment of social context?  And ultimately, how do you use this information to diagnose a “disorder” in a given individual?

These are just a few questions that the dual process model raises.  There are no easy answers, but anything that challenges us to be better physicians and avoid clinical errors, in my opinion, is well worth our time, attention, and thought.


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