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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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.


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.


Do I Want A Philosopher As My Surgeon?

February 20, 2012

I recently stumbled upon an article describing upcoming changes to the Medical College Admissions Test.  Also known as the MCAT, this is the exam that strikes fear into the hearts of pre-med students nationwide, due to its rigorous assessment of all the hard sciences that we despised in college.  The MCAT can make or break someone’s application to a prestigious medical school, and in a very real way, it can be the deciding factor as to whether someone even becomes a doctor at all.

According to the article, the AAMC—the organization which administers the MCAT—will “stop focusing solely on biology, physics, statistics, and chemistry, and also will begin asking questions on psychology, ethics, cultural studies, and philosophy.”  The article goes on to say that questions will ask about such topics as “behavior and behavior change, cultural and social differences that influence well-being, and socioeconomic factors, such as access to resources.”

Response has been understandably mixed.  On at least two online physician discussion groups, doctors are denouncing the change.  Medicine is based in science, they argue, and the proposed changes simply encourage mediocrity and “beat the drum for socialized medicine.”  Others express frustration that this shift rewards not those who can practice good medicine, but rather those who can increase “patient satisfaction” scores.  Still others believe the new MCAT is just a way to recruit a new generation of liberal-minded, government-employed docs (or, excuse me, “providers”) just in time for the roll-out of Obamacare.

I must admit that I can understand the resistance from the older generation of physicians.  In the interest of full disclosure, I was trained under the traditional medical model.  I learned anatomy, biochemistry, pathology, microbiology, etc., independently, and then had to synthesize the material myself, rather than through the “problem-based learning” format of today’s medical schools.  I also have an advanced degree in neuroscience, so I’m inclined to think mechanistically, to be critical of experimental designs, and always to search for alternate explanations of what I observe.

In spite of my own training, however, I think I might actually support the new MCAT format.  Medicine is different today.  Driven by factors that are beyond the control of the average physician, diagnostic tools are becoming more automated and treatment protocols more streamlined, even incorporated into our EMRs.  In today’s medicine, the doctor is no longer an independent, objective authority, but rather someone hired to follow a set of rules or guidelines.  We’re rapidly losing sight of (1) who the patient is, (2) what the patient wants, and (3) what unique skills we can provide to that patient.

Some examples:  The scientifically minded physician sees the middle-aged obese male with diabetes and hypertension as a guy with three separate diseases, each requiring its own treatment, often driven by guidelines that result in disorganized, fractured care.  He sees the 90 year-old woman with kidney failure, brittle osteoporosis, and congestive heart failure as a candidate for nephrology, orthopedics, and cardiology consults, exacerbating cost and the likelihood of iatrogenic injury.  In reality, the best care might come from, in the first example, a family doc with an emphasis on lifestyle change, and in the second example, a geriatrician who understands the woman’s resources, needs, and support system.

Psychiatry presents its own unique challenges.  Personally, I believe we psychiatrists have been overzealous in our redefinition of the wide range of abnormal human behaviors as “illnesses” requiring treatment.  It would be refreshing to have an economist work in a community mental health clinic, helping to redirect scarce resources away from expensive antipsychotics or wasteful “disability” programs and towards job-training or housing services instead.  Maybe a sociologist would be less likely to see an HMO patient as “depressed” and needing meds, but enduring complicated relationship problems amenable to therapy and to a reassessment of what she aspires to achieve in her life.

This may sound “touchy-feely” to some.  Trust me, ten years ago—at the peak of my enthusiasm for biological psychiatry—I would have said the same thing, and not in a kind way.  But I’ve since learned that psychiatry is touchy-feely.  And in their own unique ways, all specialties of medicine require a sophisticated understanding of human behavior, psychology, and the socioeconomic realities of the world in which we live and practice.  What medicine truly needs is that rare combination of someone who can not only describe Friedel-Crafts alkylation and define Hardy Weinberg equilibrium, but who can also understand human learning and motivation or describe—even in a very rough way—what the heck “Obamacare” is all about anyway.

If I needed cardiac bypass surgery, would I want a philosophy major as my surgeon?  I honestly don’t care, as long as he or she has the requisite technical skill to put me under the knife.  But perhaps a philosopher would be just as well—or better—prepared to judge whether I needed the operation in the first place, how to evaluate my other options (if any), and—if I undergo the surgery—how to change my behavior so that I won’t need another one.  Better yet, maybe that philosopher would also want to change conditions so that fewer people suffer from coronary artery disease, or to determine a more equitable way to ensure that anyone who needs such a procedure can get it.

If we doctors continue to see ourselves as scientists first and foremost, we’ll be ordering tests and prescribing meds until we’re bankrupt.  At the other extreme, if we’re too people-friendly, patients will certainly like us, but we may have no impact on their long-term health.  Maybe the new MCAT is a way to encourage docs to bridge this gap, to make decisions based on everything that matters, even those factors that today’s medicine tends to ignore.  It’s not clear whether this will succeed, but it’s worth a try.


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