I Just Don’t Know What (Or Whom) To Believe Anymore

July 2, 2011

de-lu-sion [dih-loo-zhuhn] Noun.  1. An idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality, typically a symptom of mental disorder.

The announcement this week of disciplinary action against three Harvard Medical School psychiatrists (which you can read about here and here and here and here) for violating that institution’s conflict-of-interest policy comes at a pivotal time for psychiatry.  Or at least for my own perceptions of it.

As readers of this blog know, I can be cynical, critical, and skeptical about the medicine I practice on a daily basis.  This arises from two biases that have defined my approach to medicine from Day One:  (1) a respect for the patient’s point of view (which, in many ways, arose out of my own personal experiences), and (2) a need to see and understand the evidence (probably a consequence of my years of graduate work in basic molecular neuroscience before becoming a psychiatrist).

Surprisingly, I have found these attributes to be in short supply among many psychiatrists—even among the people we consider to be our leaders in the field.  And Harvard’s action against Biederman, Spencer, and Wilens might unfortunately just be the tip of the iceberg.

I entered medical school in the late 1990s.  I recall one of my preclinical lectures at Cornell, in which the chairman of our psychiatry department, Jack Barchas, spoke with breathless enthusiasm about the future of psychiatry.  He expounded passionately about how the coming era would bring deeper knowledge of the biological mechanisms of mental illness and new, safer, more effective medications that would vastly improve our patients’ lives.

My other teachers and mentors were just as optimistic.  The literature at the time was filled with studies of new pharmaceuticals (the atypical antipsychotics, primarily), molecular and neuroimaging discoveries, and novel research into genetic markers of illness.  As a student, it was hard not to be caught up in the excitement of the coming revolution in biological psychiatry.

But I now wonder whether we may have been deluding ourselves.  I have no reason to think that Dr Barchas was lying to us in that lecture at Cornell, but those who did the research about which he pontificated may not have been giving us the whole story.  In fact, we’re now learning that those “revolutionary” new drugs were not quite as revolutionary as they appeared.  Drug companies routinely hid negative results and designed their studies to make the new drugs appear more effective.  They glossed over data about side effects, and frequently drug companies would ghostwrite books and articles that appeared to come from their (supposedly unbiased) academic colleagues.

This went on for a long time.  And for all those years, these same academics taught the current generation of psychiatrists like me, and lectured widely (for pay, of course) to psychiatrists in the community.

In my residency years in the mid-2000s, for instance, each one of my faculty members (with only one exception that I’m aware of) spoke for drug companies or was being paid to do research on drugs that we were actively prescribing in the clinic and on the wards.  (I didn’t know this at the time, of course; I learned this afterward.)  And this was undoubtedly the case in other top-tier academic centers throughout the country, having a trickle-down effect on the practice of psychiatry worldwide.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with academics doing research or being paid to do it.  For me, the problem is that those two “pillars” by which I practice medicine (i.e., respect for the patient’s well-being, and a desire for hard evidence) were not the priorities of much of this clinical research.  Patients weren’t always getting better with these new drugs (certainly not in the long run), and the data were finessed and refined in ways that embellished the main message.  This was, of course, exacerbated by the big paychecks many of my academic mentors received.  Money has a remarkable way of influencing what people say and how (and how often) they say it.

But how is a student—or a practicing doc in the community who is several decades out of medical school—supposed to know this?  In my opinion, those who teach medical students and psychiatry residents probably should not be on a pharma payroll or give promotional talks for drugs.  These “academic leaders” are supposed to be fair, neutral, thoughtful authorities who make recommendations on patient outcomes data and nothing else.  Isn’t that why we have academic medical centers in the first place?   (Hey, at least we know that drug reps are paid handsome salaries & bonuses by drug companies… But don’t we expect university professors to be different?)

Just as a series of little white lies can snowball into an enormous unintended deception, I’m afraid that the last 10-20 years of cumulative tainted messages (sometimes deliberate, sometimes not) about the “promises” of psychiatry have created a widespread shared delusion about what we can offer our patients.  And if that’s too much of an exaggeration, then we might at least agree that our field now suffers a crisis of confidence in our leaders.  As Daniel Carlat commented in a story about the Harvard action: “When I get on the phone now and talk to a colleague about a study… [I ask] ‘was this industry funded, and can we trust the study?'”

It may be too late to avoid irreparable damage to this field or our confidence in it.  But at least some of this is coming to light.  If nothing else, we’re taking a cue from our area of clinical expertise, and challenging the delusional thought processes that have driven our actions for many, many years.


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