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Disruptive Technology Vs. The Disruptive Physician

February 26, 2012

The technological advances of just the last decade—mobile computing, social networking, blogging, tablet computers—were never thought to be “essential” when first introduced.  But while they started as novelties, their advantages became apparent, and today these are all part of our daily lives.  These are commonly referred to as “disruptive technologies”:  upstart developments that originally found their place in niche markets outside of the mainstream, but gradually “disrupted” the conventional landscape (and conventional wisdom) to become the established ways of doing things.

In our capitalist economy, disruptive technology is considered a very good thing.  It has made our lives easier, more enjoyable, and more productive.  It has created no small number of multimillionaires.  Entrepreneurs worldwide are constantly looking for the next established technologies to disrupt, usurp, and overturn, in hopes of a very handsome payoff.

In medicine, when we talk about “disruption,” the implication is not quite as positive.  In fact, the term “disruptive physician” is an insult, a black mark on one’s record that can be very hard to overcome.  It refers to someone who doesn’t cooperate, doesn’t follow established protocols, yells at people, discriminates against others, who might abuse drugs or alcohol, or who is generally incompetent.  These are not good things.

Really?  Now, no one would argue that substance abuse, profanity, spreading rumors, degrading one’s peers, or incompetence are good.  But what about the physician who “expresses political views that are disagreeable to the hospital administration”?  How about the physician who speaks out about deficiencies in patient care or patient safety, or who (legitimately) points out the incompetence of others?  How about the physician who prioritizes his own financial and/or business objectives over those of the hospital (when in fact it may be the only way to protect one’s ability to practice)?  All of these have been considered to be “disruptive” behaviors and could be used by highly conservative medical staffs to discipline physicians and preserve the status quo.

Is this fair?  In modern psychiatry, with its shrinking appointment lengths, overreliance on the highly deficient DSM, excessive emphasis on pharmacological solutions, and an increasing ignorance of developmental models and psychosocial interventions among practitioners, maybe someone should stand up and express opinions that the “powers that be” might consider unacceptable.  Someone should speak out on behalf of patient safety.  Someone should point out extravagant examples of waste, incompetence, or abuse of privilege.  Plenty of psych bloggers and a few renegade psychiatrists do express these opinions, but they (we?) are a minority.  I don’t know of any department chairmen or APA officers who are willing to be so “disruptive.”  As a result, we’re stuck with what we’ve got.

That’s not to say there aren’t any disruptive technologies in psychiatry.  What are they?  Well, medications, for instance.  Drug treatment “disrupted” psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, and represent the foundation of most psychiatric treatment today.  Over the last 30 years, pharmaceutical companies (and prescribers) have earned millions of dollars from SSRIs, SNRIs, second-generation antipsychotics, psychostimulants, and many others.  But are people less mentally ill now than they were in the early 1980s?  Today—just in time for patent expirations!—we’re already seeing the next disruptive medication technologies, like those based on glutamate and glutamine signaling.  According to Stephen Stahl at the most recent NEI Global Congress, “we’ve beaten the monoamine horse sixteen ways to Sunday” (translation: we’ve milked everything we can out of the serotonin and dopamine stories) and glutamate is the next blockbuster drug target to disrupt the marketplace.

Another disruptive technology is the DSM.  I don’t have much to add to what’s already been written about the DSM-5 controversy except to point out what should be obvious:  We don’t need another DSM right now.  Practically speaking, a new DSM is absolutely unnecessary.  It will NOT help me treat patients any better.  But it’s coming, like it or not.  It will disrupt the way we have conducted our practices for the last 10 years (guided by the equally imperfect DSM-IV-TR), and it will put millions more dollars in the coffers of the APA.

And then, of course, is the electronic medical record (EMR).  As with the DSM-5, I don’t need to have an EMR to practice psychiatry.  But some politicians in Washington, DC, decided that, as a component of the Affordable Care Act (and in preparation for truly nationalized health care), we should all use EMRs.  They even offered a financial incentive to doctors to do so (and are levying penalties for not doing so).  And despite some isolated benefits (which are more theoretical than practical, frankly), EMRs are disruptive.  Just not in the right way.  They disrupt work flow, the doctor-patient relationship, and, sometimes, common sense.  But they’re here to stay.

Advances in records & database management, in general, are the new disruptive technologies in medicine.  Practice Fusion, a popular (and ad-supported) EMR has earned tens of millions of dollars in venture capital funding and employs over 150 people.  And what does it do with the data from the 28 million patients it serves?  It sells it to others, of course.  (And it can tell you fun things like which cities are most “lovesick.”  How’s that for ROI?)

There are many other examples of companies competing for your health-care dollar, whose products are often only peripherally related to patient care but which represent that holy grail of the “disruptive technology.”  There are online appointment scheduling services, telepsychiatry services, educational sites heavily sponsored by drug companies, doctor-only message boards (which sell doctors’ opinions to corporations), drug databases (again, sponsored by drug companies), and others.

In the interest of full disclosure, I use some of the above services, and some are quite useful.  I believe telemedicine, in particular, has great potential.  But at the end of the day, these market-driven novelties ignore some of the bigger, more entrenched problems in medicine, which only practicing docs see.  In my opinion, the factors that would truly help psychiatrists take better care of patients are of a different nature entirely:  improving psychiatric training (of MDs and non-MD prescribers); emphasizing recovery and patient autonomy in our billing and reimbursement policies; eliminating heavily biased pharmaceutical advertising (both to patients and to providers); revealing the extensive and unstated conflicts of interest among our field’s “key opinion leaders”; reforming the “disability” system and disconnecting it from Medicaid, particularly among indigent patients; and reallocating health-care resources more equitably.  But, as a physician, if I were to go to my superiors with any ideas to reform the above in my day-to-day work, I run the risk of being labeled “disruptive.”  When in fact, that would be my exact intent:  to disrupt some of the damaging, wasteful practices that occur in our practices almost every day.

I agree that disruption in medicine can be a good thing, and can advance the quality and cost-effectiveness of care.  But when most of the “disruptions” come from individuals who are not actively in the trenches, and who don’t know where needs are the greatest, we may be doing absolutely nothing to improve care.  Even worse, when we fail to embrace the novel ideas of physicians—but instead discipline those physicians for being “disruptive”—we risk punishing creativity, destroying morale, and fostering a sense of helplessness that, in the end, serves no one.

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Measuring The Immeasurable

February 9, 2012

Is psychiatry a quantitative science?  Should it be?

Some readers might say that this is a ridiculous question.  Of course it should be quantitative; that’s what medicine is all about.  Psychiatry’s problem, they argue, is that it’s not quantitative enough.  Psychoanalysis—that most qualitative of “sciences”—never did anyone any good, and most psychotherapy is, likewise, just a bunch of hocus pocus.  A patient saying he feels “depressed” means nothing unless we can measure how depressed he is.  What really counts is a number—a score on a screening tool or checklist, frequency of a given symptom, or the blood level of some biomarker—not some silly theory about motives, drives, or subconscious conflicts.

But sometimes measurement can mislead us.  If we’re going to measure anything, we need to make sure it’s something worth measuring.

By virtue of our training, physicians are fond of measuring things.  What we don’t realize is that the act of measurement itself leads to an almost immediate bias.  As we assign numerical values to our observations, we start to define values as “normal” or “abnormal.”  And medical science dictates that we should make things “normal.”  When I oversee junior psychiatry residents or medical students, their patient presentations are often filled with such statements as “Mr. A slept for 5 hours last night” or “Ms. B ate 80% of her meals,” or “Mrs. C has gone two days without endorsing suicidal ideation,” as if these are data points to be normalized, just as potassium levels and BUN/Cr ratios need to be normalized in internal medicine.

The problem is, they’re not potassium levels or BUN/Cr ratios.  When those numbers are “abnormal,” there’s usually some underlying pathology which we can discover and correct.  In psychiatry, what’s the pathology?  For a woman who attempted suicide two days ago, does it really matter how much she’s eating today?  Does it really matter whether an acutely psychotic patient (on a new medication, in a chaotic inpatient psych unit with nurses checking on him every hour) sleeps 4 hours or 8 hours each night?  Even the questions that we ask patients—“are you still hearing voices?”, “how many panic attacks do you have each week?” and the overly simplistic “can you rate your mood on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is sad and 10 is happy?”— attempt to distill a patient’s overall subjective experience into an elementary quantitative measurement or, even worse, into a binary “yes/no” response.

Clinical trials take measurement to an entirely new level.  In a clinical trial, often what matters is not a patient’s overall well-being or quality of life (although, to be fair, there are ways of measuring this, too, and investigators are starting to look at this outcome measure more closely), but rather a HAM-D score, a MADRS score, a PANSS score, a Y-BOCS score, a YMRS score, or any one of an enormous number of other assessment instruments.  Granted, if I had to choose, I’d take a HAM-D score of 4 over a score of 24 any day, but does a 10- or 15-point decline (typical in some “successful” antidepressant trials) really tell you anything about an individual’s overall state of mental health?  It’s hard to say.

One widely used instrument, the Clinical Global Impression scale, endeavors to measure the seemingly immeasurable.  Developed in 1976 and still in widespread use, the CGI scale has three parts:  the clinician evaluates (1) the severity of the patient’s illness relative to other patients with the same diagnosis (CGI-S); (2) how much the patient’s illness has improved relative to baseline (CGI-I); and (3) the efficacy of treatment.  (See here for a more detailed description.)  It is incredibly simple.  Basically, it’s just a way of asking, “So, doc, how do you think this patient is doing?” and assigning a number to it.  In other words, subjective assessment made objective.

The problem is, the CGI has been criticized precisely for that reason—it’s too subjective.  As such, it is almost never used as a primary outcome measure in clinical trials.  Any pharmaceutical company that tries to get a drug approved on the basis of CGI improvement alone would probably be laughed out of the halls of the FDA.  But what’s wrong with subjectivity?  Isn’t everything that counts subjective, when it really comes down to it?  Especially in psychiatry?  The depressed patient who emerges from a mood episode doesn’t describe himself as “80% improved,” he just feels “a lot better—thanks, doc!”  The psychotic patient doesn’t necessarily need the voices to disappear, she just needs a way to accept them and live with them, if at all possible.  The recovering addict doesn’t think in terms of “drinking days per month,” he talks instead of “enjoying a new life.”

Nevertheless, measurement is not a fad, it’s here to stay.  And as the old saying goes, resistance is futile.  Electronic medical records, smartphone apps to measure symptoms, online checklists—they all capitalize on the fact that numbers are easy to record and store, easy to communicate to others, and satisfy the bean counters.  They enable pharmacy benefit managers to approve drugs (or not), they enable insurers to reimburse for services (or not), and they allow pharmaceutical companies to identify and exploit new markets.  And, best of all, they turn psychiatry into a quantitative, valid science, just like every other branch of medicine.

If this grand march towards increased quantification persists, the human science of psychiatry may cease to exist.  Unless we can replace these instruments with outcome measures that truly reflect patients’ abilities and strengths, rather than pathological symptoms, psychiatry may be replaced by an impersonal world of questionnaires, checklists, and knee-jerk treatments.  In some settings, that that’s what we have now.  I don’t think it’s too late to salvage the human element of what we do.  A first step might be simply to use great caution when we’re asked to give a number, measure a symptom, or perform a calculation, on something that is intrinsically a subjective phenomenon.  And to remind ourselves that numbers don’t capture everything.


Do What You’re Taught

February 5, 2012

In my mail yesterday was an invitation to an upcoming 6-hour seminar on the topic of “Trauma, Addiction, and Grief.”  The course description included topics such as “models of addiction and trauma/information processing” and using these models to plan treatment; recognizing “masked grief reactions” and manifestations of trauma in clients; and applying several psychotherapeutic techniques to help a patient through addiction and trauma recovery.

Sound relevant?  To any psychiatrist dealing with issues of addiction, trauma, grief, anxiety, and mood—which is pretty much all of us—and interested in integrative treatments for the above, this would seem to be an entirely valid topic to learn.  And, I was pleased to learn that the program offers “continuing education” credit, too.

But upon reading the fine print, credit is not available for psychiatrists.  Instead, you can get credit if you’re one the following mental health workers:  counselor, social worker, MFT, psychologist, addiction counselor, alcoholism & drug abuse counselor, chaplain/clergy, nurse, nurse practitioner, nurse specialist, or someone seeking “certification in thanatology” (whatever that is).  But not a psychiatrist.  In other words, psychiatrists need not apply.

Well, okay, that’s not entirely correct, psychiatrists can certainly attend, and–particularly if the program is a good one—my guess is that they would clearly benefit from it.  They just won’t get credit for it.

It’s not the first time I’ve encountered this.  Why do I think this is a big deal?  Well, in all of medicine, “continuing medical education” credit, or CME, is a rough guide to what’s important in one’s specialty.  In psychiatry, the vast majority of available CME credit is in psychopharmacology.  (As it turns out, in the same batch of mail, I received two “throwaway” journals which contained offers of free CME credits for reading articles about treating metabolic syndrome in patients on antipsychotics, and managing sexual side effects of antidepressants.)  Some of the most popular upcoming CME events are the Harvard Psychopharmacology Master Class and the annual Nevada Psychopharmacology Update.  And, of course, the NEI Global Congress in October is a can’t-miss event.  Far more psychiatrists will attend these conferences than a day-long seminar on “trauma, addiction, and grief.”  But which will have the most beneficial impact on patients?

To me, a more important question is, which will have the most beneficial impact on the future of the psychiatrist?   H. Steven Moffic, MD, recently wrote an editorial in Psychiatric Times in which he complained openly that the classical “territory” of the psychiatrist—diagnosis of mental disorder, psychotherapy, and psychopharmacology—have been increasingly ceded to others.  Well, this is a perfect example.  A seminar whose content is probably entirely applicable to most psychiatric patients, being marketed primarily to non-psychiatrists.

I’ve always maintained—on this blog and in my professional life—that psychiatrists should be just as (if not more) concerned about the psychological, cultural, and social aspects of their patients and their experience as in their proper psychopharmacological management.  It’s also just good common sense, especially when viewed from the patient’s perspective.  But if psychiatrists (and our leadership) don’t advocate for the importance of this type of experience, then of course others will do this work, instead of us.  We’re making ourselves irrelevant.

I’m currently experiencing this irony in my own personal life.  I’m studying for the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology certification exam (the “psychiatry boards”), while looking for a new job at the same time.  On the one hand, while studying for the test I’m being forced to refresh my knowledge of human development, the history of psychiatry, the theory and practice of psychotherapy, the cognitive and psychological foundations of axis I disorders, theories of personality, and many other topics.  That’s the “core” subject matter of psychiatry, which is (appropriately) what I’ll be tested on.  Simultaneously, however, the majority of the jobs I’m finding require none of that.  I feel like I’m being hired instead for my prescription pad.

Psychiatry, as the study of human experience and the treatment of a vast range of human suffering, can still be a fascinating field, and one that can offer so much more to patients.  To be a psychiatrist in this classic sense of the word, it seems more and more like one has to blaze an independent trail: obtain one’s own specialized training, recruit patients outside of the conventional means, and—unless one wishes to live on a relatively miserly income—charge cash.  And because no one seriously promotes this version of psychiatry, this individual is rapidly becoming an endangered species.

Maybe I’ll get lucky and my profession’s leadership will advocate more for psychiatrists to be better trained in (and better paid for) psychotherapy, or, at the very least, encourage educators and continuing education providers to emphasize this aspect of our training as equally relevant.  But as long as rank-and-file psychiatrists sit back and accept that our primary responsibility is to diagnose and medicate, and rabidly defend that turf at the expense of all else, then perhaps we deserve the fate that we’re creating for ourselves.


Whatever Works?

January 29, 2012

My iPhone’s Clock Radio app wakes me each day to the live stream of National Public Radio.  Last Monday morning, I emerged from my post-weekend slumber to hear Alix Spiegel’s piece on the serotonin theory of depression.  In my confused, half-awake state, I heard Joseph Coyle, professor of psychiatry at Harvard, remark: “the ‘chemical imbalance’ is sort of last-century thinking; it’s much more complicated than that.”

Was I dreaming?  It was, admittedly, a surreal experience.  It’s not every day that I wake up to the voice of an Ivy League professor lecturing me in psychiatry (those days are long over, thank Biederman god).  Nor did I ever expect a national news program to challenge existing psychiatric dogma.  As I cleared my eyes, though, I realized, this is the real deal.  And it was refreshing, because this is what many of us have been thinking all along.  The serotonin hypothesis of depression is kaput.

Understandably, this story has received lots of attention (see here and here and here and here and here).  I don’t want to jump on the “I-told-you-so” bandwagon, but instead to offer a slightly different perspective.

A few disclaimers:  first and foremost, I agree that the “chemical imbalance” theory has overrun our profession and has commandeered the public’s understanding of mental illness—so much so that the iconic image of the synaptic cleft containing its neurotransmitters has become ensconced in the national psyche.  Secondly, I do prescribe SSRIs (serotonin-reuptake inhibitors), plus lots of other psychiatric medications, which occasionally do work.  (And, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve taken three of them myself.  They did nothing for me.)

To the extent that psychiatrists talk about “chemical imbalances,” I can see why this could be misconstrued as “lying” to patients.  Ronald Pies’ eloquent article in Psychiatric Times last summer describes the chemical-imbalance theory as “a kind of urban legend,” which no “knowledgeable, well-trained psychiatrist” would ever believe.  But that doesn’t matter.  Thanks to us, the word is out there.  The damage has already been done.  So why, then, do psychiatrists (even the “knowledgeable, well-trained” ones) continue to prescribe SSRI antidepressants to patients?

Because they work.

Okay, maybe not 100% of the time.  Maybe not even 40% of the time, according to antidepressant drug trials like STAR*D.  Experience shows, however, that they work often enough for patients to come back for more.  In fact, when discussed in the right context, their potential side effects described in detail, and prescribed by a compassionate and apparently intelligent and trusted professional, antidepressants probably “work” far more than they do in the drug trials.

But does that make it right to prescribe them?  Ah, that’s an entirely different question.  Consider the following:  I may not agree with the serotonin theory, but if I prescribe an SSRI to a patient with depression, and they report a benefit, experience no obvious side effects, pay only $4/month for the medication, and (say) $50 for a monthly visit with me, is there anything wrong with that?  Plenty of doctors would say, no, not at all.  But what if my patient (justifiably so) doesn’t believe in the serotonin hypothesis and I prescribe anyway?  What if my patient experiences horrible side effects from the drug?  What if the drug costs $400/month instead of $4?  What if I charge the patient $300 instead of $50 for each return visit?  What if I decide to “augment” my patient’s SSRI with yet another serotonin agent, or an atypical antipsychotic, causing hundreds of dollars more, and potentially causing yet more side effects?  Those are the aspects that we don’t often think of, and constitute the unfortunate “collateral damage” of the chemical-imbalance theory.

Indeed, something’s “working” when a patient reports success with an antidepressant; exactly why and how it “works” is less certain.  In my practice, I tell my patients that, at individual synapses, SSRIs probably increase extracellular serotonin levels (at least in the short-term), but we don’t know what that means for your whole brain, much less for your thoughts or behavior.  Some other psychiatrists say that “a serotonin boost might help your depression” or “this drug might act on pathways important for depression.”   Are those lies?  Jeffrey Lacasse and Jonathan Leo write that “telling a falsehood to patients … is a serious violation of informed consent.”  But the same could be said for psychotherapy, religion, tai chi, ECT, rTMS, Reiki, qigong, numerology, orthomolecular psychiatry, somatic re-experiencing, EMDR, self-help groups, AA, yoga, acupuncture, transcendental meditation, and Deplin.  We recommend these things all the time, not knowing exactly how they “work.”

Most of those examples are rather harmless and inexpensive (except for Deplin—it’s expensive), but, like antidepressants, all rest on shaky ground.  So maybe psychiatry’s problem is not the “falsehood” itself, but the consequences of that falsehood.  This faulty hypothesis has spawned an entire industry capitalizing on nothing more than an educated guess, costing our health care system untold millions of dollars, saddling huge numbers of patients with bothersome side effects (or possibly worse), and—most distressingly to me—giving people an incorrect and ultimately dehumanizing solution to their emotional problems.  (What’s dehumanizing about getting better, you might ask?  Well, nothing, except when “getting better” means giving up one’s own ability to manage his/her situation and instead attribute their success to a pill.)

Dr Pies’ article in Psychiatric Times closed with an admonition from psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi:  “We must not be drawn into a haze of promiscuous eclecticism in our treatment; rather, we must be guided by well-designed studies and the best available evidence.”  That’s debatable.  If we wait for “evidence” for all sorts of interventions that, in many people, do help, we’ll never get anywhere.  A lack of “evidence” certainly hasn’t eliminated religion—or, for that matter, psychoanalysis—from the face of the earth.

Thus, faulty theory or not, there’s still a place for SSRI medications in psychiatry, because some patients swear by them.  Furthermore—and with all due respect to Dr Ghaemi—maybe we should be a bit more promiscuous in our eclecticism.  Medication therapy should be offered side-by-side with competent psychosocial treatments including, but not limited to, psychotherapy, group therapy, holistic-medicine approaches, family interventions, and job training and other social supports.  Patients’ preferences should always be respected, along with safeguards to protect patient safety and prevent against excessive cost.  We may not have good scientific evidence for certain selections on this smorgasbord of options, but if patients keep coming back, report successful outcomes, and enter into meaningful and lasting recovery, that might be all the evidence we need.


Where Doctors Get Their Information

January 24, 2012

Doctors spend four years in medical school, still more years in residency, and some devote even more years to fellowship training.   All of this work is done under direct supervision, and throughout the process, trainees learn from their teachers, mentors, and supervisors.  But medicine changes very rapidly.  After all of this training—i.e., once the doctor is “out in the real world”—how does he or she keep up with the latest developments?

Medical journals are the most obvious place to start.  Many doctors subscribe to popular journals like the New England Journal of Medicine or JAMA, or they get journals as a perk of membership in their professional society (for example, the American Journal of Psychiatry for members of the APA).  But the price of journals—and professional society memberships—can accumulate quickly, as can the stacks of unread issues on doctors’ desks.

A second source is continuing medical education credit.  “CMEs” are educational units that doctors are required to obtain in order to keep their medical license.  Some CME sources are excellent, although most CMEs are absurdly easy to obtain (e.g., you watch an online video; answer a few multiple-choice questions about a brief article; or show up for the morning session of a day-long conference, sign your name, then head out the door for a round of golf), making their educational value questionable.  Also, lots of CMEs are funded by pharmaceutical or medical device manufacturers (see here), where bias can creep in.

Direct communication with drug companies—e.g., drug sales reps—can also be a source of information.  Some universities and health-care organizations have “cracked down” on this interaction, citing inappropriate sales techniques and undue influence on doctors.  While docs can still contact the medical departments (or “medical science liaisons”) of big drug companies, this source of info appears to be running dry.

So what’s left?  Medical textbooks?  They’re usually several years out of date, even at the time of publication.  Medical libraries?  Unless you’re affiliated with a teaching hospital, those libraries are off-limits.  “Throwaway” journals?  Every specialty has them—they arrive in the mail, usually unrequested, and contain several topical articles and lots of advertising; but these articles generally aren’t peer-reviewed, and the heavy advertising tends to bias their content.  Medical websites?  Same thing.  (WebMD, for instance, is heavily funded by industry—a point that has not escaped the attention of watchdog senator Charles Grassley.)

Thus, the doctor in the community (think of the psychiatrist in a small group practice in your hometown) is essentially left alone, in the cold, without any unbiased access to the latest research.  This dilemma has become starkly apparent to me in the last several months.  Since last summer, I have worked primarily in a community hospital.  Because it is not an academic institution, it does not provide its employees or trainees access to the primary literature (and yes, that includes psychiatry residents).  I, on the other hand, have been fortunate enough to have had a university affiliation for most of my years of practice, so I can access the literature.  If I need to look up the details of a recent study, or learn about new diagnostic procedures for a given disorder, or prepare for an upcoming talk, I can find just about anything I need.  But this is not the case for my colleagues.  Instead, they rely on textbooks, throwaway journals, or even Wikipedia.  (BTW, Wikipedia isn’t so bad, according to a recent study out of Australia.  But I digress…)

Obviously, if one uses “free” resources to obtain medical information, that info is likely to be as unbiased as the last “free” Cymbalta dinner he or she attended.  Many doctors don’t recognize this.

When it comes to journals, it gets potentially more interesting.  All of the top medical journals are available online.  And, like many online newspapers and magazines, articles are available for a fee.  But the fees are astronomical—typically $30 or $35 per article—which essentially prohibits any doc from buying more than one or two, let alone doing exhaustive research on a given subject.

Interestingly, some articles are freely available (“open access” is the industry term).  You can try this yourself:  go to pubmed.gov and search for a topic like “bipolar disorder” or “schizophrenia.”  You’ll get thousands of results.  Some results are accompanied by the “Free Article” tag.  You can guess which articles most docs will choose to read.

Why are some articles free while others aren’t?  What’s the catch?  Well, sometimes there is no catch.  For one, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) requires any research done with its funding to be freely available within six months of a paper’s publication.  This makes sense: NIH funds are our tax dollars, so it’s only fair that we get to see the data.  (But even this is coming under attack, since the publishers want to protect their content—and revenue stream.)

Interestingly, though, some journals also have a “pay-for-open-access” policy, in which an author can pay a higher publication fee to make his/her article freely available.  In other words, if I publish a (non-NIH-funded) study but want it to reach a wider audience than simply those ivory-tower types with access to fully-stocked libraries, I can just pay extra.  That’s right, some publishers give me the option to pay to attract readers like community docs, the lay public, journalists, and others (not to mention potential investors in a company with which I’m affiliated).  The policy for Elsevier, one of the world’s largest academic publishers, on such “sponsored articles” can be found here.

You can see where this might lead.  Call me cynical, but paying for more eyeballs sounds a lot like advertising.  Of course, these are peer-reviewed articles, so they do meet some standards of scientific integrity.  (Or do they?  A recent article suggests that “narrative reviews” often misrepresent or overstate claims of medication efficacy.  See also this summary of the article by Neuroskeptic.)

Anyway, the take-home message is, unfortunately, one that we’ve heard all too often.  Science is supposed to be pristine, objective, and unbiased, but it’s clearly not.  Even when you take out the obvious advertising, the drug-rep showmanship, and the pharma-funded CME, there are still ways for a product-specific message to make its way to a doctor’s eyes and ears.  And if our medical journals supposedly represent the last bastion of scientific integrity—the sacred repository of truth in a world of direct-to-consumer advertising, biased KOLs, and Big Pharma largesse—we should be particularly cautious when they fail to serve that purpose.


The Unfortunate Therapeutic Myopia of the EMR

January 19, 2012

There’s a lot you can say about an electronic medical record (EMR).  Some of it is good: it’s more legible than a written chart, it facilitates billing, and it’s (usually) readily accessible.  On the other hand, EMRs are often cumbersome and confusing, they encourage “checklist”-style medicine, and they contain a lot of useless or duplicate information.  But a recent experience in my child/adolescent clinic opened my eyes to where an EMR might really mislead us.

David, a 9 year-old elementary school student, has been coming to the clinic every month for the last three years.  He carries a diagnosis of “bipolar disorder,” manifested primarily as extreme shifts in mood, easy irritability, insomnia, and trouble controlling his temper, both in the classroom and at home.  Previous doctors had diagnosed “oppositional defiant disorder,” then ADHD, then bipolar.  He had had a trial of psychostimulants with no effect, as well as some brief behavioral therapy.  Somewhere along the way, a combination of clonidine and Risperdal was started, and those have been David’s meds for the last year.

The information in the above paragraph came from my single interaction with David and his mom.  It was the first time I had seen David; he was added to my schedule at the last minute because the doctor he had been seeing for the last four months—a locum tenens doc—was unavailable.

Shortly before the visit, I had opened David’s EMR record to review his case, but it was not very informative.  Our EMR only allows one note to be open at a time, and I saw the same thing—”bipolar, stable, continue current meds”—and some other text, apparently cut & pasted, in each of his last 3-4 notes.  This was no big surprise; EMRs are full of cut & pasted material, plus lots of other boilerplate stuff that is necessary for legal & billing purposes but can easily be ignored.  The take-home message, at the time, was that David had been fairly stable for at least the last few months and probably just needed a refill.

During the appointment, I took note that David was a very pleasant child, agreeable and polite.  Mom said he had been “doing well.”  But I also noticed that, throughout the interview, David’s mom was behaving strangely—her head bobbed rhythmically side to side, and her arms moved in a writhing motion.  She spoke tangentially and demonstrated some acute (and extreme) shifts in emotion, at one point even crying suddenly, with no obvious trigger.

I asked questions about their home environment, David’s access to drugs and alcohol, etc., and I learned that mom used Vicodin, Soma, and Xanax.  She admitted that they weren’t prescribed to her—she bought them from friends.  Moreover, she reported that she “had just taken a few Xanax to get out the door this morning” which, she said, “might explain why I’m acting like this.”  She also shared with me that she had been sent to jail four years ago on an accusation of child abuse (she had allegedly struck her teenage daughter during an argument), at which time David and his brothers were sent to an emergency children’s shelter for four nights.

Even though I’m not David’s regular doctor, I felt that these details were relevant to his case.  It was entirely possible, in my opinion, that David’s home environment—a mother using prescription drugs inappropriately, a possible history of trauma—had contributed to his mood lability and “temper dysregulation,” something that a “bipolar” label might mask.

But I’m not writing this to argue that David isn’t “bipolar.”  Instead, I wish to point out that I obtained these details simply by observing the interaction between David and his mom over the course of ~30 minutes, and asking a few questions, and not by reading his EMR record.  In fact, after the appointment I reviewed the last 12 months of his EMR record, which showed dozens of psychiatrists’ notes, therapists’ notes, case manager’s notes, demographic updates, and “treatment plans,” and all of it was generally the same:  diagnosis, brief status updates, LOTS of boilerplate mumbo-jumbo, pages and pages of checkboxes, a few mentions of symptoms.  Nothing about David’s home situation or mom’s past.  In fact, nothing about mom at all.  I could not have been the first clinician to have had concerns about David’s home environment, but if such information was to be found in his EMR record, I had no idea where.

Medical charts—particularly in psychiatry—are living documents.  To any physician who has practiced for more than a decade or so, simply opening an actual, physical, paper chart can be like unfolding a treasure map:  you don’t know what you’ll find, but you know that there may be riches to be revealed.   Sometimes, while thumbing through the chart, a note jumps out because it’s clearly detailed or something relevant is highlighted or “flagged” (in the past, I learned how to spot the handwriting of the more perceptive and thorough clinicians).  Devices like Post-It notes or folded pages provide easy—albeit low-tech—access to relevant information.  Also, a thick paper chart means a long (or complicated) history in treatment, necessitating a more thorough review.  Sometimes the absence of notes over a period of time indicates a period of decompensation, a move, or, possibly a period of remission.  All of this is available, literally, at one’s fingertips.

EMRs are far more restrictive.  In David’s case, the EMR was my only source of information—apart from David himself.  And for David, it seemed sterile, bland, just a series of “check-ins” of a bipolar kid on Risperdal.  There was probably more info somewhere in there, but it was too difficult and non-intuitive to access.  Hence, the practice (adopted by most clinicians) of just opening up the patient’s most recent note—and that’s it.

Unfortunately, this leads to a therapeutic myopia that may change how we practice medicine.  EMRs, when used this way, are here-and-now.  They have become the medical equivalent of Facebook.  When I log on to the EMR, I see my patient’s most recent note—a “status update,” so to speak—but not much else.  It takes time and effort to search through a patient’s profile for more relevant historical info—and that’s if you know where to look.  After working with seven different EMRs in the last six years, I can say that they’re all pretty similar in this regard.  And if an electronic chart is only going to be used for its most recent note, there’s no incentive to be thorough.

Access to information is great.  But the “usability” of EMRs is so poor that we have easy access only to what the last clinician thought was important.  Or better yet, what he or she decided to document.  The rest—like David’s home life, the potential impact of his mother’s behavior on his symptoms, and environmental factors that require our ongoing attention, all of which may be far more meaningful than David’s last Risperdal dose—must be obtained “from scratch.”  If it is obtained at all.


The Curious Psychology of “Disability”

December 28, 2011

I’ll start this post with a brief clinical vignette:

I have been seeing Frank, a 44 year-old man, on a regular basis for about six months.  He first came to our community clinic with generalized, nonspecific complaints of “anxiety,” feeling “uncomfortable” in public, and getting “angry all the time,” especially toward people who disagreed with him.  His complaints never truly met official criteria for a DSM-IV disorder, but he was clearly dissatisfied with much in his life and he agreed to continue attending biweekly appointments.  Frank once requested Xanax, by name, but I did not prescribe any medication; I never felt it was appropriate for his symptoms, and besides, he responded well to a combined cognitive-interpersonal approach exploring his regret over past activities as a gang member (and related incarcerations), feelings of being a poor father to his four daughters, and efforts to improve his fragile self-esteem.  Even though Frank still has not met criteria for a specific disorder (he currently holds the imprecise and imperfect label of “anxiety NOS”), he has shown significant improvement and a desire to identify and reverse some of his self-defeating behaviors.

Some of the details (including his name) have been changed to preserve Frank’s privacy.  However, I think the general story still gets across:  a man with low self-worth, guilty feelings, and self-denigration from his overidentification with past misdeeds, came to me for help.  We’ve made progress, despite a lack of medications, and the lack of a clear DSM-IV (or, most likely, DSM-5) diagnosis.  Not dramatic, not earth-shattering, but a success nonetheless.  Right?

Not so fast.

Shortly after our appointment last week, I received a request for Frank’s records from the Social Security Administration, along with a letter from a local law firm he hired to help him obtain benefits.  He had apparently applied for SSI disability and the reviewers needed to see my notes.

I should not have been surprised by this request.  After all, our clinic receives several of these requests each day.  In most cases, I don’t do anything; our clinic staff prints out the records, sends them to SSA, and the evaluation process proceeds generally without any further input from us (for a detailed description of the disability evaluation process, see this article).  But for some reason, this particular request was uniquely heartbreaking.  It made me wonder about the impact of the “disability” label on a man like Frank.

Before I go further, let me emphasize that I’m looking at Frank’s case from the viewpoint of a psychiatrist, a doctor, a healer.  I’m aware that Frank’s family is under some significant financial strain—as are many of my patients in this clinic (a topic about which I’ve written before)—and some sort of welfare or financial support, such as SSI disability income, would make his life somewhat easier.  It might even alleviate some of his anxiety.

However, in six months I have already seen a gradual improvement in Frank’s symptoms, an increase in his motivation to recover, and greater compassion for himself and others.  I do not see him as “disabled”; instead, I believe that with a little more effort, he may be able to handle his own affairs with competence, obtain some form of gainful employment, and raise his daughters as a capable father.  He, too, recognizes this and has expressed gratitude for the progress we have made.

There is no way, at this time, for me to know Frank’s motives for applying for disability.  Perhaps he simply saw it as a way to earn some supplementary income.  Perhaps he believes he truly is disabled (although I don’t think he would say this—and if he did, I wish he’d share it with me!).  I also have no evidence to suggest that Frank is trying to “game the system.”  He may be following the suggestions of a family member, a friend, or even another healthcare provider.  All of the above are worthwhile topics to discuss at our next appointment.

But once those records are sent, the evaluation process is out of my hands.  And even if Frank’s request is denied, I wonder about the psychological effect of the “disability” label on Frank’s desire to maintain the gains he has made.  Labels can mean a lot.  Psychiatric diagnoses, for instance, often needlessly and unfairly label people and lead to unnecessary treatment (and it doesn’t look like DSM-5 will offer much improvement).  Likewise, labels like “chronic,” “incurable,” and “disabled” can also have a detrimental impact, a sentiment expressed emphatically in the literature on “recovery” from mental illness.  The recovery movement, in fact, preaches that mental health services should promote self-direction, empowerment, and patient choice.  If, instead, we convey pessimism, hopelessness, and the stigma of “disability,” we may undermine those goals.

As a healer, I believe that my greatest responsibility and most difficult (although most rewarding) task is to instill hope and optimism in my patients.  Even though not all of them will be entirely “symptom-free” and able to function competently in every situation life hands them, and some may require life-long medication and/or psychosocial support (and, perhaps, disability income), I categorically refuse to believe that most are “disabled” in the sense that they will never be able to live productive, satisfying lives.

I would bet that most doctors and most patients agree with me.  With the proper supports and interventions, all patients (or “users” or “consumers,” if you prefer those terms) can have the opportunity to succeed, and potentially extricate themselves from invisible chains of mental illness.  In Frank’s case, he is was almost there.

But the fact that we as a society provide an institution called “disability,” which provides benefits to people with a psychiatric diagnosis, requiring that they see a psychiatrist, and often requiring that they take medication, sends a very powerful—and potentially unhealthy—psychological message to those who can overcome their disability.  To Frank, it directly contradicts the messages of hope and encouragement I try to offer at each visit.  It makes him dependent upon me, rather than upon himself and his own resources and abilities.  In other words, to a man like Frank, disability is anti-recovery.

I don’t have an easy answer to this problem.  For starters, changing the name of “disability” to something like “temporary psychological material support”—a substitute label, nothing more—might be helpful.  Also, rewarding recipients (e.g., not repealing their benefits) for meeting predetermined milestones of recovery (part-time work, independent housing, etc) may also help.  But the more I think about the life-affirming and empowering potential of recovery, and about how we allocate our scarce resources, the more I believe that the recovery-based—as opposed to disability-based—practice of psychiatry has much more to offer the future of our patients, our profession, and our nation, than the current status quo.  For the sake of Frank’s recovery, and the recovery of countless other men and women like him, maybe it’s time to make that happen.


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