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The Perils of Checklist Psychiatry

March 16, 2011

It’s no secret that doctors in all specialties spend less and less time with patients these days.  Last Sunday’s NY Times cover article (which I wrote about here and here) gave a fairly stark example of how reimbursement incentives have given modern psychiatry a sort of assembly-line mentality:  “Come in, state your problems, and here’s your script.  Next in line!!”  Unfortunately, all the trappings of modern medicine—shrinking reimbursements, electronic medical record systems which favor checklists over narratives, and patients who frequently want a “quick fix”—contribute directly to this sort of practice.

To be fair, there are many psychiatrists who don’t work this way.  But this usually comes with a higher price tag, which insurance companies often refuse to pay.  Why?  Well, to use the common yet frustrating phrase, it’s not “evidence-based medicine.”  As it turns out, the only available evidence is for the measurement of specific symptoms (measured by a checklist) and the prescription of pills over (short) periods of time.  Paradoxically, psychiatry—which should know better—no longer sees patients as people with interesting backgrounds and multiple ongoing social and psychological dynamics, but as collections of symptoms (anywhere in the world!) which respond to drugs.

The embodiment of this mentality, of course, is the DSM-IV, the “diagnostic manual” of psychiatry, which is basically a collection of symptom checklists designed to make a psychiatric diagnosis.  Now, I know that’s a gross oversimplification, and I’m also aware that sophisticated interviewing skills can help to determine the difference between a minor disturbance in a patient’s mood or behavior and a pathological condition (i.e., betwen a symptom and a syndrome).  But often the time, or those skills, simply aren’t available, and a diagnosis is made on the basis of what’s on the list.  As a result, psychiatric diagnoses have become “diagnoses of inclusion”:  you say you have a symptom, you’ll get a diagnosis.

To make matters worse, the checklist mentality, aided by the Internet, has spawned a small industry of “diagnostic tools,” freely available to clinicians and to patients, and published in books, magazines, and web sites.  (The bestselling book The Checklist Manifesto may have contributed, too.  In it, author-surgeon Atul Gawande explains how simple checklists are useful in complex situations in which lives are on the line.  He has received much praise, but the checklists he describes help to narrow our focus, when in psychiatry it should be broadened.  In other words, checklists are great for preparing an OR for surgery, or a jetliner for takeoff, but not in identifying the underlying causes of an individual’s suffering.)

Anyway, a quick Google search for any mental health condition (or even a personality trait like shyness, irritability, or anger) will reveal dozens of free questionnaires, surveys, and checklists designed to make a tentative diagnosis.  Most give the disclaimer “this is not meant to be a diagnostic tool—please consult your physician.”

But why?  If the patient has already answered all the questions that the doctor will ask anyway in the 10 to 15 minutes allotted for their appointment, why can’t the patient just email the questionnaire directly to a doc in another state (or another country) from the convenience of their own home, enter their credit card information, and wait for a prescription in the mail?  Heck, why not eliminate the middleman and submit the questionnaire directly to the drug company for a supply of pills?

I realize I’m exaggerating here.  Questionnaires and checklists can be extremely helpful—when used responsibly—as a way to obtain a “snapshot” of a patient’s progress or of his/her active symptoms, and to suggest topics for discussion in a more thorough interview.  Also, people also have an innate desire to know how they “score” on some measure—the exercise can even be entertaining—and their results can sometimes reveal things they didn’t know about themselves.

But what makes psychiatry and psychology fascinating is the discovery of alternate, more parsimonious (or potentially more serious) explanations for a patient’s traits and behaviors; or, conversely, informing a patient that his or her “high score” is actually nothing to be worried about.  That’s where the expert comes in.  Unfortunately, experts can behave like Internet surveys, too, and when we do, the “rush to judgment” can be shortsighted, unfair, and wrong.

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