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What’s the Proper Place of Science in Psychiatry and Medicine?

April 29, 2012

On the pages of this blog I have frequently written about the “scientific” aspects of psychiatry and questioned how truly scientific they are.   And I’m certainly not alone.  With the growing outcry against psychiatry for its medicalization of human behavior and the use of powerful drugs to treat what’s essentially normal variability in our everyday existence, it seems as if everyone is challenging the evidence base behind what we do—except most of us who do it on a daily basis.

Psychiatrists are unique among medical professionals, because we need to play two roles at once.  On the one hand, we must be scientists—determining whether there’s a biological basis for a patient’s symptoms.  On the other hand, we must identify environmental or psychological precursors to a patient’s complaints and help to “fix” those, too.  However, today’s psychiatrists often eschew the latter approach, brushing off their patients’ internal or interpersonal dynamics and ignoring environmental and social influences, rushing instead to play the “doctor” card:  labeling, diagnosing, and prescribing.

Why do we do this?  We all know the obvious reasons:  shrinking appointment lengths, the influence of drug companies, psychiatrists’ increasing desire to see themselves as “clinical neuroscientists,” and so on.

But there’s another, less obvious reason, one which affects all doctors.  Medical training is all about science.  There’s a reason why pre-meds have to take a year of calculus, organic chemistry, and physics to get into medical school.  It’s not because doctors solve differential equations and perform redox reactions all day.  It’s because medicine is a science (or so we tell ourselves), and, as such, we demand a scientific, mechanistic explanation for everything from a broken toe to a myocardial infarction to a manic episode.  We do “med checks,” as much as we might not want to, because that’s what we’ve been trained to do.  And the same holds true for other medical specialties, too.  Little emphasis is placed on talking and listening.  Instead, it’s all about data, numbers, mechanisms, outcomes, and the right drugs for the job.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink the whole “medical science” enterprise.  In much of medicine, paying more and more attention to biological measures—and the scientific evidence—hasn’t really improved outcomes.  “Evidence-based medicine,” in fact, is really just a way for payers and the government to create guidelines to reduce costs, not a way to improve individual patients’ care. Moreover, we see examples all the time—in all medical disciplines—of the corruption of scientific data (often fueled by drug company greed) and very little improvement in patient outcomes.  Statins, for instance, are effective drugs for high cholesterol, but their widespread use in people with no other risk factors seems to confer no additional benefit.  Decades of research into understanding appetite and metabolism hasn’t eradicated obesity in our society.  A full-scale effort to elucidate the brain’s “reward pathways” hasn’t made a dent in the prevalence of drug and alcohol addiction.

Psychiatry suffers under the same scientific determinism.  Everything we call a “disease” in psychiatry could just as easily be called something else.  I’ve seen lots of depressed people in my office, but I can’t say for sure whether I’ve ever seen one with a biological illness called “Major Depressive Disorder.”  But that’s what I write in the chart.  If a patient in my med-management clinic tells me he feels better after six weeks on an antidepressant, I have no way of knowing whether it was due to the drug.  But that’s what I tell myself—and that’s usually what he believes, too.  My training encourages me to see my patients as objects, as collections of symptoms, and to interpret my “biological” interventions as having a far greater impact on my patients’ health than the hundreds or thousands of other phenomena my patient experiences in between appointments with me.  Is this fair?

(This may explain some of the extreme animosity from the anti-psychiatry crowd—and others—against some very well-meaning psychiatrists.  With few exceptions, the psychiatrists I know are thoughtful, compassionate people who entered this field with a true desire to alleviate suffering.  Unfortunately, by virtue of their training, many have become uncritical supporters the scientific model, making them easy targets for those who have been hurt by that very same model.)

My colleague Daniel Carlat, in his book Unhinged, asks the question: “Why do [psychiatrists] go to medical school? How do months of intensive training in surgery, internal medicine, radiology, etc., help psychiatrists treat mental illness?”  He lays out several alternatives for the future of psychiatric training.  One option is a hybrid approach that combines a few years of biomedical training with a few years of rigorous exposure to psychological techniques and theories.  Whether this would be acceptable to psychiatrists—many of whom wear their MD degrees as scientific badges of honor—or to psychologists—who might feel that their turf is being threatened—is anyone’s guess.

I see yet another alternative.  Rather than taking future psychiatrists out of medical school and teaching them an abbreviated version of medicine, let’s change medical school itself.  Let’s take some of the science out of medicine and replace it with what really matters: learning how to think critically and communicate with patients (and each other), and to think about our patients in a greater societal context.  Soon the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) will include more questions about cultural studies and ethics.  Medical education should go one step further and offer more exposure to economics, politics, management, health-care policy, decision-making skills, communication techniques, multicultural issues, patient advocacy, and, of course, how to interpret and critique the science that does exist.

We doctors will need a scientific background to interpret the data we see on a regular basis, but we must also acknowledge that our day-to-day clinical work requires very little science at all.  (In fact, all the biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, and anatomy we learned in medical school is either (a) irrelevant, or (b) readily available on our iPhones or by a quick search of Wikipedia.)  We need to be cautious not to bring science into a clinical scenario simply because it’s easy or “it’s what we know,” particularly—especially—when it provides no benefit to the patient.

So we don’t need to take psychiatry out of medicine.  Instead, we should bring a more enlightened, patient-centered approach to all of medicine, starting with formal medical training itself.  This would help all medical professionals to offer care that focuses on the person, rather than an MRI or CT scan, receptor profile or genetic polymorphism, or lab value or score on a checklist.  It would help us to be more accepting of our patients’ diversity and less likely to rush to a diagnosis.  It might even restore some respect for the psychiatric profession, both within and outside of medicine.  Sure, it might mean that fewer patients are labeled with “mental illnesses” (translating into less of a need for psychiatrists), but for the good of our patients—and for the future of our profession—it’s a sacrifice that we ought to be willing to make.

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