Be Careful What You Wish For

September 2, 2012

Whatever your opinion of the Affordable Care Act, you must admit that it’s good to see the American public talk about reducing health care costs, offering more efficient delivery systems, and expanding health care services to more of our nation’s people.  There’s no easy (or cheap) way to provide health care to all Americans, particularly with the inefficiencies and absurdities that characterize our current health care system, but it’s certainly goal worth pursuing.

However, there’s more to the story than just expanding coverage to more Americans.  There’s also the issue about improving the quality of that coverage.  If you listen to the politicians and pundits, you might get the impression that the most important goal is to insure more people, when in fact insurance may leave us with worse outcomes in the end.

Take, for example, an Op-Ed by Richard Friedman, MD, published in the New York Times in July.  The title says it all: “Good News For Mental Illness in Health Law.”  Dr Friedman makes the observations that seem de rigueur for articles like this one:  “Half of Americans will experience a major psychiatric disorder,” “mental illnesses are chronic lifelong diseases,” and so forth.  Friedman argues that the Affordable Care Act will—finally!—give these people the help they need.

Sounds good, right?  Well, not so fast.  First of all, there are two strategies in the ACA to insure more patients:  (1) the individual mandate, which requires people to purchase insurance through the state health-insurance exchanges, and (2) expansion of Medicaid, which may add another 11 million more people to this public insurance plan.

So more people will be insured.  But where’s the evidence that health insurance—whether private or public—improves outcomes in mental health?  To be sure, in some cases, insurance can be critically important: the suicidal patient can be hospitalized for his safety; the substance-abusing patient can access rehabilitation services; and the patient with bipolar disorder can stay on her mood stabilizing medication and keep her job, her family, and her life.  But there are many flavors of mental illness (i.e., not everything called “bipolar disorder” is bipolar disorder), and different people have different needs.  That’s the essence of psychiatry: understanding the person behind the illness and delivering treatment accordingly.  Individualized care is a lot harder when millions of people show up for it.

I’ve worked in insurance settings and Medicaid settings.  I’ve seen first-hand the emphasis on rapid treatment, the overwhelming urge to medicate (because that’s generally all we psychiatrists have time—and get paid—to do in such settings), and the underlying “chronic disease” assumption that keeps people persistently dependent on the psychiatric system.  This model does work for some patients.  But whether it “works” for all—or even most—patients seems to be less important than keeping costs low or enrolling as many people as possible for our services.

These demands are not only external; they have become part of the mindset of many psychiatrists.  I spent my last year of residency training, for instance, in a public mental health system, where I was a county employee and all patients were Medicaid recipients.  I walked away with a sense that what mattered was not the quality of care I provided, nor whether I developed treatment plans that incorporated people’s unique needs, nor whether my patients even got better at all.  Instead, what was most important (and what we were even lectured on!) was how to write notes that satisfied the payers, how to choose medications on the basis of a 20- or 30-minute (or shorter) assessment, and how not to exceed the 12 annual outpatient visits each patient was allotted.  To make matters worse, there was no way to discharge a patient without several months of red tape—regardless of whether the patient no longer needed our services, or was actually being harmed by the treatment.  The tide has definitely turned: tomorrow’s psychiatrists will answer to administrators’ rules, not the patients’ needs—and this generation of trainees will unfortunately never even know the difference.

The great irony in this whole debacle is that those who argue loudest for expansion of health care also tend to be those who argue for more humanistic and compassionate treatment.  In a similar vein, some of the most conscientious and compassionate doctors I know—many of them supporters of Obamacare—have deliberately chosen to work outside of insurance or Medicaid/Medicare altogether.  (I can’t say that I blame them, but isn’t that sort of like singing the praises of public education but sending your kids to private school?)  With more people obtaining mental health care through insurance “benefits,” the current model will become more widespread:  we’ll continue overprescribing unnecessary drugs to children and adults, institutionalizing people against their will even when less restrictive options may be more effective, offering lower reimbursements for psychotherapy and complementary services, and inviting practitioners with lesser training and experience (and whose experience is often limited exclusively to offering pills) to become the future face of mental health care.

Do psychiatry’s leaders say anything about these issues?  No.  When they’re not lamenting the lack of new pharmaceutical compounds or attacking those who offer valid critiques of modern-day psychiatry, they’re defending the imperfect DSM-5 and steadfastly preserving our right to prescribe drugs while the pharmaceutical industry is more than happy to create new (and costly) products to help us do so.  One solution may be to train psychiatrists to be cognizant of the extraordinary diversity among individuals who seek psychiatric help, to understand the limitations of our current treatments, and to introduce patients to alternatives.  While this may be more expensive up front, it may actually save money in the future:  for example, thorough diagnostic assessments by more seasoned and experienced providers may direct patients away from expensive office-and-medication-based treatment, and towards community-based services, self-help programs, talk therapy when indicated or desired by the patient, social work services, or any of a number of alternative resources geared towards true recovery.

Alas, no one seems to be offering that as an alternative.  Instead, we’re patting ourselves on the back for expanding health care coverage to more people and developing cost-saving initiatives of dubious benefit.  Somewhere along the way, we seem to have forgotten what “care” really means.  I wonder when we’ll start figuring that one out.

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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.


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