Monday, June 18, 2018

They Don't Even Know What They Are Seeing.......

I was walking back from a meeting with a psychiatric colleague the other day.  There was the usual grousing about the practice environment and miscommunication and she made the following observation about why physicians and psychiatrists don't get the information they need.  She pointed out that in many cases the nonphysician  observers: "Don't even know what they are seeing."  If you are counting on people for observational data and that is true - that is a setup up for suboptimal care at the minimum and a catastrophe at the worst.

Take the case of a very basic measurement - blood pressure and pulse.  Anyone taking those measurements should be aware of the guidelines and whether or not the patient has a baseline abnormality, condition that can affect either, or medication effect that leads to changes in the vital signs.  They should also be aware of the limitations of measurement.  All of the automatic blood pressure machines in the world will not be able to assess and treat the patient unless the operators know what the numbers mean.  They also need to know that one of the problems with single operator and strictly machine operated approaches is that arrhythmias are problematic even if the blood pressure is fine.  There have been stations where I had to put together a continuing education course on blood pressure and pulse and the correct assessment of both.  That was a long time before the recent article on common mistakes made by medical students in these measurements.

If measurements that are considered routine and done hundreds of times a day are problematic what about observations that occur on the other end of the spectrum.  A common health care myth today is: "If I have a checklist and check off all of the boxes on that list that will lead me to some kind of diagnosis."   That is probably a minimization of the myth.  In the case of psychiatry, the myth is more: "If I convert a standard psychiatric assessment into a form (or a checklist) - the ultimate product of going through that list will basically be a psychiatric evaluation and diagnosis."  Systems of care who use this approach can deny these myths as much as they want but I see this happening every day. Organized psychiatry and the DSM approach to diagnostic criteria is partially responsible, although the manual does say that it can't be used by anybody.  It doesn't say who specifically should use it and it does not suggest (like Kendler) that it is an indexing approach.

Looking at the graphic at the top of the page illustrates why a form or a checklist does not suffice.  The observer/psychiatrist in the drawing is doing more than asking the subject a series of yes or no questions.  The psychiatrist is looking for patterns in symptoms (medical and psychiatric), what is happening in relationships with the person (including the relationship to the psychiatrist), and the person's conscious state - specifically whether there has been a departure from baseline.  There is often a balance between historical detail, phenomenology, the person's ability to describe what has happened and a plausible scenario based on probability estimates from the psychiatrist's previous experience.  Any psychiatrist who has been trained in many presentations of complex psychiatric illness is more likely to see those patterns than somebody who has not been.

To illustrate some of these concepts I will describe several cases that are all what non-psychiatrists (nonphysicians and other physicians) called hysteria. Hysteria is an old word that dies hard.  The DSM equivalent is histrionic personality disorder.  The generic use of the term suggests a person who is overly emotional, dramatic and attention seeking but there are 8 diagnostic criteria that are unchanged between DSM-IV and DSM-5.  Many clinicians opt for the term Cluster B - a DSM-IV originated term that grouped personality disorders in groups according to some common diagnostic features.  The Cluster B group included individuals that often appear dramatic, emotional, or erratic.  Those personality disorder diagnoses include antisocial, histrionic, narcissistic, and borderline.

The rule-in criteria (significant impact on life circumstances and onset when you expect a personality disorder to occur) and the rule-out criteria (not due to another mental or physical disorder) are predictable for any causal reader of a DSM and could be included on any checklist or form.  How does all of that play out.  Well here are a few examples:

Hysterical patient #1:   A 30 year old woman presents for a therapy intake.  She is mumbling and laughing.  The therapist describes her as "odd and having an odd affect."  She alludes to some suicidal behavior in the past but is smiling and joking about it.  The therapist has the impression that she is manipulative and overly dramatic.  He contacts the clinic psychiatrist and says that she is histrionic but he is concerned about her suicide potential.  The psychiatrist sees her that day and makes a diagnosis of bipolar disorder-mixed type with psychotic features.  The patient is eventually stabilized on lithium and an atypical antipsychotic.

Hysterical patient #2:  A 25 year old woman is being treated on a general medicine ward for dehydration from a respiratory infection.  She suddenly gets tearful and agitated.  Family members visiting have to physically restrain her when when she tries to get out of bed.  She starts to make very loud high pitched vocalizations.  A psychiatrist is called to go in to assess hysteria and possibly sedate the patient.  The psychiatrist sees an agitated young woman who is not able to respond coherently to any examination questions.  Brief neurological examination suggests increased intracranial pressure is the problem and the patient requires immediate transfer to a neurological intensive care unit. 

Hysterical patient #3:  A 58 year old man is referred acutely from a therapist for acute panic attacks and "probable Cluster B" personality traits.  He has recently retired due to osteoarthritis of the knees.  He had no earlier history of panic attacks but the therapist thought that he was overly dramatic at the initial session 2 days earlier when he was unable to relax and breathe normally with behavioral techniques that are usually effective.  The psychiatrist gets a history of the patient needing to abort an exercise stress test two weeks earlier due to the arthritis and having  a prolonged period of immobility at home due to sore knees. During that time he developed acute shortness of breath.  The episodes of anxiety that he described were secondary to shortness of breath and not panic attacks.  The psychiatrist sends the patient to the emergency department where an acute pulmonary embolism is diagnosed and he is admitted to the ICU.     

These are just a few examples restricted to one collection of psychiatric symptoms that illustrates what my colleague was referring to.  The value of psychiatric training goes far beyond what is in the DSM and what checklists and templates can be extracted from it.  I have never really met a psychiatrist who was focused on the DSM probably because it is implicitly evident to us that it is an index more than a diagnostic manual. We are focused on what is not in the DSM and as far as I know not well documented in many places.  Those are the patterns associated with clinical practice and that should have been gleaned along the way in medical training.  The DSM doesn't tell you how a pulmonary embolism presents. It is possible that you night have never seen one. But in medical training I can guarantee that it was discussed somewhere along the line in the differential diagnosis of dyspnea.  I can guarantee that one of those attendings discussed the phenomenon of the healthy young adult immobilized by air travel who gets off at their destination and suddenly has an acute pulmonary embolism. All of those features and urgencies should be in a physicians conscious state when they are seeing the whole patient and not some DSM/checklist version of a patient.

This brief post also illustrates the biasing effects of language.  What  does "Cluster B" really mean?  Aren't people who are acutely medically (or psychiatrically) ill dramatic, emotional, or erratic?  Hysteria is an extremely biasing term that over the centuries has been applied selectively to women rather than men.   The examples above illustrate that point.  If you are seeing the world through DSM language and that is your only lens - you are by definition not seeing the whole patient.  The list of possible errors in that landscape is very large.

There are a number of constraints that will get  in the way of a trained psychiatrist trying to see the whole patient.  Inadequate time is one, but time frames vary significantly.  Diagnosing a life threatening medical problem upon seeing a patient may take a matter of minutes and is clearly the most important diagnosis.  Seeing a long series of new patients briefly to prescribe treatment will necessarily mean that certain features in the above diagram will be missed.  So-called measurement based care depending on a large number of checklists to "quantitate" affects or other psychiatric states makes the same mistake.  Collaborative care where a psychiatrist looks at these rating scales and recommends treatments makes the same mistake.

The best assurance that the critical aspects of care will not be missed is to be sitting across the room from someone who has been taught all of the critical aspects of care.  That process is complex and as far as I know has never been adequately described.  A first approximation is whether that person knows what they are seeing and how to respond.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA     

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Conscious States and Suicide.....

When I first starting writing this blog - I decided that I was not going to make the common mistake of using celebrity tragedies as a springboard for posts.  I have been very pleased with that decision.  Given recent events - it is evident that people who use that approach are speculating and either don't know enough of the details or make sweeping statements that they could have made without any specific reference to the person or their family.  It is also evident that in some cases, the potential for damage to the survivors is great and should be avoided at all costs.  The only rationale that I hear is they were celebrities and the people want to know.

I will comment on the mystery of suicide.  How is it that a highly accomplished person with ample resources and even supportive people and family in their life can make a decision to take their life?  The press has settled on a couple of unsatisfactory answers that flow from the risk analysis approach to suicide.  In other words, let's look at number of modifiable and unmodifiable correlates of suicide attempts and use those in an analysis of a specific death by suicide.  After the fact it is basically a fishing expedition trying to fit the pieces together in a way that there is a logical and linear story about how the incident unfolded.  If the person is famous enough there may not be a final judgment until the autopsy toxicology comes in many weeks later.  Even if a coherent story is constructed, the story may be debated for years on cable TV shows that have medical experts second guessing real time experts.

Serious and intractable disorders and impulsivity is a big part of the current media story.  I had somebody ask me today: "Is it true that people just make the decision and in 5 minutes they are dead?"  People tell me stories about Golden Gate Bridge jumpers who survived to tell about it and that is what they reported.  All of the stories are very linear - there is a precipitant and then depression with depressed moods and then an impulsive suicide attempt. 

Psychiatrists are trained to recognize and treat all of the major disorders that are thought to increase risk for suicide including substance use disorders.  We are also trained to be optimistic about the treatment and consider these diagnoses to be modifiable - if they are treated correctly they will respond to treatment and improve thereby reducing risk for suicide.  Overall psychiatrists are successful in that approach as evidenced by reduced suicidal thinking and in some cases behavior that is directly observable in hospital units.  Self report by patients is another valuable metric that is rarely talked about.  Patients can at some point say: "I seriously contemplating suicide and had a plan to kill myself until I came here for treatment." or "During my last pregnancy - at one point I was going to kill myself.  I don't want that to happen again.  I want to have a plan this time to prevent that from happening."

From an epidemiological standpoint, psychiatrists in general treat people who are at much higher risk than the general population for suicide.  The CDC, just came out with data to show that the suicide rate in the USA from 2014 was 13 per 100,000.  Many of the disorders treated by psychiatrists have lifetime suicide rates of 10-15%.  In a cohort of 100 people with the disorder, 10-15 are expected to die by suicide over the course of their lifetime.  Suicides by people in active treatment by psychiatrists is rare relative to those numbers but they do happen.  They are more likely to happen during transitions between care settings like hospital discharges or when care is fragmented. They are more likely to happen when there are destabilizing factors in the person environment and easy access to highly lethal methods of suicide - like firearms.

Even in the case where a person has survived a potentially lethal suicide attempt it may be difficult to piece together what has happened.  Consider the following case.  John M. is interviewed in his hospital bed by a consult psychiatrist.  Three days earlier he shot himself through the left shoulder with a handgun and barely survived.  He has extensive damage to the structure of his left shoulder and it will be a while before his surgeons can advise him on whether to not it can be reconstructed.  It is clear that he has been depressed and somewhat paranoid for years.  The psychiatrist asks him about the injury.

JM:  "I guess I shot myself?"
PSY: "Can you tell me about the sequence of events?"
JM:  "Well - I was feeling very depressed.  I thought about calling my parents but they have done too much for me already.  I started to think that I was not worthy of their help anymore.  I feel worthless and like a burden to my family.  I knew they would miss me - but at some point you realize sure they will feel bad for awhile, but they will get over it in a while and the burden will be lifted.  At that point I thought I would get out my .44 and shoot myself in the chest..."
PSY: "Tell me exactly what you were thinking.."
JM:  "Like I said I felt hopeless and like I was a burden. At some point I realized that I was pointing the gun at myself.  I knew I did not want to shoot myself. I have a nephew and I wanted to see him again. And then the gun just went off.."
PSY: "The gun went off?  Don't you remember pulling the trigger? Were you holding the gun in your right hand or your left hand?"
JM:  "I am right handed.  I was holding it in my right hand and pointing it at the center of my chest."
PSY: "Do you remember what you thought when you pulled the trigger?"
JM:  "I don't remember pulling the trigger.... One minute I see my hand and wrist and the gun barrel and then it goes off and I am on the floor bleeding."

Further discussion of the incident does not provide any further degree of clarity.  The psychiatrist has to come up with a diagnosis and a formulation as well as a risk assessment of future suicide potential.  There are several diagnostic possibilities including mood disorders with or without psychotic features including substance induced mood disorders.  Alcohol, stimulants, and opioids can all  cause acute suicidal thinking during intoxication and withdrawal states.  The suicide assessment is basically a collection of risk factors that at the time of this interview may not be entirely relevant.  For example, the patient in this case did not have any suicidal thinking at all and was pleased that he had survived at the time of this interview.  Irrespective of all of those considerations there may be some psychiatrists who would be comfortable discharging the patient at that point.  I am not one of them. In this case I would opt for a more detailed assessment and period of observation and an attempt to restore the person to his baseline level of functioning.

In acute care psychiatry, we talk a lot about baseline and cannot always achieve it.  People my not be aware of the fact that they are not at baseline, insist they are fine, and want to go home even if they are at high risk.  People may not want to access help in the first place for the same reason.  We can only assess baseline very indirectly.  The best current way is an extended conversation with a person who knows them very well.  Is their social behavior and personality the way it should be? How do they differ from that.

This baseline that we refer to and assess only peripherally is critically important when it comes to suicide risk.  We are actually referring to the person's conscious state.  There are no ways to assess baseline conscious states.  All of our energy has been focused on extreme psychopathological states and the handful of criteria that are used to define them.  By way of contrasts the human brain is designed to generate billions of unique conscious states - no two are ever alike because these billions of states have all had unique life experience to think about.  There is no universal agreement -even among researchers about how to define conscious states - but discussing the contents of consciousness is a fairly universal approach. I typically ask students to imagine their own stream of consciousness and why it night be unique. But that is only part of what defines a unique conscious state.  Subjective experience is another.  Unique subjective experience is diametrically opposed to the usual methods in psychiatry of trying to index disorders based on a handful of common features.  A person's unique experience is much less likely to be recorded anywhere in today's era of rationed psychiatric care and poor documentation.  Conscious states are also subject to perturbations that are transient  based on internal and external conditions.  In the case of suicidal thoughts, in my thousands of interviews of people the most common reply I get is: "Yeah - I have had a few suicidal thoughts -hasn't everybody?"

In this era of inability to assess and essentially predict a person's conscious state it should not be surprising that we have only the most basic knowledge about the assessment and treatment of suicide potential.  We are generally using a very crude risk assessment and many of the variables may be unchanged for years.  It is not like an actuarial assessment for insurance purposes where the outcomes and statistics are not that dynamic.  In the case of suicide assessment, we don't know all of the variables, the number of variables is large, and we may not even know the person's baseline conscious state unless we have known them for years.  To further complicate matters - they may not be able to tell us about their baseline state until they have recovered it and recognize that they have changed.  The change we are interested in is going from a state that would never consider suicide to one that would.

 The media storm around recent events, will seem to provide a number of pat answers based on society, culture, pop psychology, and special interests.  They seem to ignore the fact that in any given society, these rates rise and fall.  The current rate was the same in 1950 and 1970.  Moreover American society is intermediate relative to the rest of the world when it comes to suicide rates. Some countries with more psychiatrists per capita have higher suicide rates.

On an individual level, suicidal thinking especially if it is combined with of other psychiatric  symptoms is a red flag.  It suggests that a person should try to obtain professional help.  There is no easy way to discuss the consciousness issue on more than a fragmentary basis at this point.  I do try to discuss it with people as a risk factor, but if they are in an altered state they may not be able to hear what I have to say.  The current practical approach is to listen carefully to people who know that person well and have their best interest in mind. 

A reasonable pathway to assessment and treatment is paying attention to any changes that a concerned third party may have noticed and if that person with the problem can't see it - get a neutral third party professional involved and give them all of the information.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The New York Times - Steers Mental Health Conversation In the Wrong Direction

An editorial came out today in the New York Times entitled The Crazy Talk About Bringing Back Asylums.  They took a line from President Trump that the Parkland shootings could have prevented if there were more psychiatric beds.  I am  sure was intended to temper any anti-gun sentiment rather than suggest the need for reform of mental health services, but the editorial suggests that this triggered a new debate about the need for asylum beds and looks at (on the negative side) a caricatured extreme view of increased bed capacity.  This political approach to mental health care is exactly what is wrong with policy for the past three decades.

The first mistake in the article is the following sentence:

"Psychiatric facilities are unlikely to prevent crimes similar to the Parkland shooting because people are typically not committed until after a serious incident."

Any acute care psychiatrist can attest to the fact that this is incorrect.  A considerable amount of mayhem, violence and aggression is prevented by the availability of both acute care inpatient beds and psychiatrists treating potentially aggressive people in both inpatient and outpatient settings.  There are no controlled studies of the problem because they would be unethical.  You can't randomly assign homicidal or suicidal people to placebo treatments.  They all have to be actively treated.  At times courts release people who have threatened suicide, violence or homicide without treatment for the associated mental illness and they go on to complete exactly what they said they were going to do.  At other times patients will say that they are very satisfied that they were treated because they recognized they were irrational and about to commit an irreversible act.  The clearest example is the person who is aggressive form the time of admission and the aggression does not abate until they have been actively treated for several days.  People are committed on the basis of all of these scenarios and before serious incidents occur.

Instead of Bring back the asylums they thought they would attempt other slogans to "steer the conversation" presumably about improving the care of mental illnesses in the United States.

1. Demand sensible commitment standards:  

There are essentially just three commitment standards:  dangerousness to self (or suicide potential), dangerousness to others (or aggression and in some cases homicide potential), and grave disability (or an inability to care for oneself).  What could be more sensible?  The problem is that the law is subjective and there is always a way around sensibility.  That workaround could involve a highly aggressive defense attorney with a goal to get the patient "off" rather than worry about any consequences. It could involve a number of administrative issues like the cost of civil commitment (obviously cheaper to not try) or an arbitrary decision by a hospital or court administrator that there are just "too many commitments" and it is time to roll them back- at least until the next adverse outcome.  Another common way around commitment is just to ignore the grave disability standard and in effect say commitment will occur only for dangerousness. If someone really wants to split hairs - the dangerousness has to be "imminent" and it can always be not imminent enough.  For commitment standards to have any meaning at all - they have to be implemented by sensible people.  We need to demand sensible people. More importantly there needs to be accountability and available data from commitment courts on outcomes.

The other part of the problem is that psychiatric beds are so rationed that in order to get into one - managed care organizations say that you need to be dangerous in order to get admitted.  That creates a false burden on court systems who may not be sensible about commitment in the first place.  In the context of this demand they are even less sensible.     

2.  Create a continuum of care:

The NYTimes takes a historical approach going back to the Kennedy era and the deinstitutionalization argument.  First of all there are places that have a continuum of care. The community psychiatry movement was highly successful in following people outside of state hospitals and supporting them in independent living.  Some cities like Madison, WI have a large community mental health center as well as several assertive community treatment (ACT) teams that follow people with serious mental illnesses.

The reason why there is no followup similar to medical and surgical patients with significant disabilities is several fold.  Rationing by the insurance industry and federal and state governments is the primary cause.  It is easy to save money by denying equivalent care to the mentally ill and people with severe addictions.  Over time this has led to separate acute care services in some community hospitals and long term care facilities that are typically run by the state. The large majority of hospitals in most states do not provide acute psychiatric care.  Both acute care and state systems are rationed to provide as little care as possible. It is currently in the financial interest of every managed care and insurance company in the country to maintain this fragmented system of care because it saves them all money.  In the meantime disproportionate amounts of money and resources are funneled to very other type of specialty care.

At the state level, the bed situation is so dire or nonexistent in state hospitals that it should be very clear that they have adopted the managed care rationing plan to eliminate care for the mentally ill.  That is the reason that jails are the defacto psychiatric hospitals at this time.  There is of course no standard for psychiatric care in jails and most people tell me they do not get their prescribed medications.  This is also the reason why asylum care does not work.  Asylums were basically buildings that were poorly managed by the state.

3. Stand up for insurance parity:  

Parity is a joke.  Insurance industry rationing and micromanagement of mental health treatment has continued unabated since the passage of the  Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act.  After watching professional organizations and  mental health advocacy organizations patting themselves on the back after this legislation was passed - it has been more than a little depressing for psychiatrists on the front lines to watch as the denials of care are unchanged from before the bill.  Those organizations have been standing up for parity and against stigma for about 20 years with no results.

It is difficult to get parity when most states have an insurance industry friendly complaint system and the physicians who want to complain are either employees of a managed care company or limited by confidentiality laws.  Standing up for parity is meaningless symbolism at this point. It doesn't require a complicated HHS investigation.  What is needed is a review panel in every state - staffed by psychiatrists who have no financial conflicts with the insurance companies being complained about.  The precedent for those review panels was the Peer Review Organization (PRO) panels that were set up to review all Medicare financed care in the 1980s and 1990s. There is no reason why those reviews should occur today.  The only really effective alternative has been an activist attorney general ordering some of these companies to correct egregious denials of care.  Activist attorney generals do not occur frequently enough to make a sustained difference.

The larger problem is the way that healthcare is funded in the USA. I will add an illustrative post later in the week, but the percentage of the health care dollar dedicated to the treatment of mental illness is at an all time low.  The Hay Report of the 1990s documented the disproportionate drop in health care funding and it seems that governments and insurance companies expect it to stay at that level.

The NYTimes says that all it will take is a "collective will and a decency to act".  Are they serious?  Isn't that all it will take to end mass shootings in public schools?  This is just another naive approach to public policy written by people with no expertise who are ignoring the political landscape.  It is fashionable to call those people stakeholders these days.

As usual the real stakeholders - people with mental illness, their families, and psychiatrists are left out.  The suggested slogans are as problematic as the one about bringing back asylums that the NYTimes was concerned about.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


For detailed information about this problem go to the pinned Tweet at the top of this feed and all of the links.


1.  The New York Times Editorial Board.  The Crazy Talk About Bringing Back Asylums.  New York Times June 2, 2018.


Kodachrome slide shot by me in 1982 of Milwaukee County Hospital.  Not an asylum but it looked like one.



Friday, June 1, 2018

The Victim Meme In Addiction and Recovery

The popular press has created a victim meme in discussing addiction and the recovery process.  An example would be the popular quote from the NYTimes: "Only in death do drug users become victims. Until then, they are criminals".  I have problems with these quotes that have become memes in social media because the idea that people with substance use disorders are victims does not seem to originate in either the medical field and the physicians who treat them or the recovery literature written by the affected people themselves.  The other operative word in this quote is "users".  To me that means that nobody here is forced to initiate drug use or assaulted and forcibly given addictive drugs.

My first year as a psychiatry resident, I can recall a fellow resident presenting a patient to the senior attending.  He used the term unfortunate to describe the patient, a homeless middle aged man with a chronic psychosis and alcoholism.  The attending cut him off and said "What do you mean by unfortunate?"  In the next ten minutes or so, we learned that the patient was no more unfortunate than any of the other 20 men with severe psychiatric disorders on that unit. By extension the term was essentially meaningless, because it did not discriminate that person from any one else and it was irrelevant to the diagnosis and treatment planning. Years later, I learned it could also be an impediment to the treatment relationship.  A ban on smoking rapidly went into effect and the staff were split on what that meant. Many believed that it would result in more violence and aggression. Part of the ensuing rhetoric was "That is all that these unfortunate people have.  If we take smoking away from them - what's left?"  A very dim view of a person's life is required to see it as existence for the sake of smoking.  I would go so far to say it is blatantly dehumanizing.

The idea of patient as victims occurred again in psychiatry during the satanic ritualistic abuse phase and more recently during the patients are all victims of childhood abuse phase.  In the former case it lead to a proliferation of multiple personality disorder diagnoses and encouraging the proliferation of this myth with the associated unnecessary treatment.  In the case of treating everyone like a victim,  that program was correlated with an increase in aggression and staff assaults in state hospital settings and an eventual abandonment of the program.  Somewhere along the way, the application of a broad implementation of treatment based on whether or not a person is a victim is problematic from a programmatic standpoint, as well as the individual treatment relationship.

In terms of the individual evaluation, being victimized is a part of the clinical history.  Like grief, practically everyone has a history of some type of physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse in the past.  The psychiatrists job is determining if it is relevant to the current problem and how it has impacted the patient's long term conscious state on an ongoing basis.  At a practical level it has resulted in an  ICD-11 diagnostic criteria set that identifies fewer patients as having PTSD compared with DSM-5.  From the linked reference it appears that there will be concern over identification of PTSD as well as under identification.  It is a more difficult task than just matching clinical criteria.  In many cases, PTSD symptoms recur in the context of depressive episodes and significant episodes of anxiety and resolve again when those episodes are treated.  In acute situations like intimate partner violence, advocates can provide a valuable function until a patient's living situation has been stabilized.  If victimization is a relevant clinical theme, it is addressed by addressing the associated syndromes and psychotherapy that is focused on maintaining safety, alleviating symptoms, and facilitating relevant lifestyle changes.           

Apart from victims the concept of the criminalization of the drug user is also a popular meme.  Simplified it is that drug users and alcoholics should be treated and not incarcerated.  It is based on the assumption that most of these folks are incarcerated on trivial drug or alcohol charges or probation violations from those trivial charges.  That can certainly happen.  Unfortunately real crimes involving loss of life, serious injury, and property crimes also happen.  I recently heard a District Attorney talk about the scope of the problem at the Minnesota Society of Addiction Medicine May 30 meeting.  He was keenly aware of the problem because law enforcement resources are currently flooded with opioid and methamphetamine users as well as people with severe mental illnesses.  He presented the problem to his prosecuting attorney and asked them to come up with a solution for people being prosecuted for drug crimes.   They ended up with a three step plan for sentencing offenders to maximize the likelihood of treatment and the ability to change felony crimes to misdemeanors after adjudication. The main message was that there is no interest on the part of prosecutors to incarcerate drug offenders, but there is clearly a limit with the associated crimes.

In the recovery literature, victim is rarely seen.  The Narcotics Anonymous book uses it in one place in the Eighth Step:  "Many of us have difficulty admitting that we caused harm for others, because we thought that we were victims of our addiction.  Avoiding this rationalization is crucial to the Eighth Step"  (p 38).  The AA 12 and 12 (2) contains the words victim in Steps 1, 3, 4, 10 and 12.  The term is used to make the general argument for powerlessness (Step 1), to discuss the effects of remorse and guilt (Step 3), to discuss the effects of erratic emotions (Step 4),  to illustrate the problem with resentments (Step 10), and how the program can free members from irrational fears (Step 12).  The bedrock of 12-step recovery is powerlessness and that is not the same thing as being a victim even though that word is used in Step 1. 

I don't think that I am going too far out on a limb in suggesting that the victim meme is not relevant in addiction, addiction psychiatry, or recovery. The importance of powerlessness as opposed to being a victim is captured from reference 2:

"Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be the firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives can be built."  (p. 21).

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


For other variations on the victim meme see these previous posts:

The Whitening of the Opioid Epidemic:

Addiction Narratives Versus Reality:


1.  Narcotics Anonymous (6th Edition).  World Service Office.  California, USA 2008, p 38.

2.  12 Steps and 12 Traditions.  AA World Services, Inc.  New York City 2007.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Synthetic Cannabinoids and Life Threatening Coagulopathy

Just when I thought that renal failure was the only unexpected complication of synthetic cannabinoids - it turns out they can also cause bleeding or more specifically Vitamin K dependent antagonist coagulopathy.   The basic mechanism of action is noted in the above diagram on the action of warfarin on Vitamin K dependent mechanisms that can lead to an anticoagulated state.  Warfarin and similar Vitamin K antagonists block the function of the vitamin K epoxide reductase complex.  That blocks the recycling of Vitamin K epoxide and eventual depletion of Vitamin K.  That is turn leads to no gamma carboxylation of Vitamin K dependent coagulation factors (depicted here as descarboxy prothrombin being converted to prothrombin (Factor II), but factors VII, IX, and X are also involved).  

The anticoagulated state can be used therapeutically to prevent embolic strokes or recurrent pulmonary emboli, but warfarin has a very narrow therapeutic index and it needs to be monitored closely in patients who are also watching their diet and drug interactions to prevent excessive anticoagulation and bleeding that can be fatal. The warfarin effect can be reversed by Vitamin K administration.

The CDC issued an outbreak alert last month about an outbreak that occurred in the midwest - largely Illinois about unexplained bleeding.  The time frame where this was noted was the previous year.  People were presenting to emergency departments with unexplained bleeding ( no exposure to anticoagulants or anticoagulant containing rat poison and no medical explanation for the bleeding).  In their Clinical Action Alert they explain the symptoms of coagulopathy including bleeding from the gums, nose, gastrointestinal tract, genitourinary tract, excessive bruising, unexplained abdominal of flank pain, mental status change, feeling faint, and collapse.  There were a total of two fatalities at the time of the alert and medical evaluation and treatment with Vitamin K and fresh frozen plasma suggested that the toxicity was due to brodifacoum a long acting Vitamin K antagonist found in rat poison.

Ninety four people were involved through April 5, 2018.  Since that time the Illinois web site following this outbreak reports 164 cases including 4 deaths since March 2018.  They name a few of the brands commonly sold including K2, Spice, Black Mamba, Bombay Blue, Genie, and Zohai but emphasize that there are a large number of these compounds as listed in a previous post on this blog.  As previously noted, synthetic cannabinoids are basically highly concentrated organic chemical that are sprayed in plant material to facilitate smoking.  When I checked the medical literature to see if these cases were written up and specific biochemical analyses done - I found the only reference brodifacoum was a study done (1) that looked at the results of applications to areas around marijuana growing operations.  Anticoagulant based rodenticides are apparently used to prevent damage to the crop and are described as being used extensively.  This study looked at marijuana growers on California and the relationship to wildlife species.  In this case a threatened species the northern spotted owl was necropsied and it was demonstrated that the liver and blood contained high concentrations of brodifacoum.  The authors point out a basic ecological principle that if the target of the rodenticide is rodent - it will be concentrated to higher levels in the predators higher in the food chain.  The alarming situation here is the fact that dead wildlife from rodenticide poisoning have been found around 22% of 41 marijuana growers in 3 California counties.

The message from the CDC and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) was clear.  Be aware of the problem, recognize coaglopathies, and be prepared to intervene.  The IDPH advises consumers to watch for bleeding and bruising if they have used these compounds and if it occurs to seek emergency assistance.  The CDC discusses the high cost of Vitamin K therapy and possible shortages, the need to warn post op patients not to use these compounds, and concern that some of the affected patients may be plasma donors.

Addiction docs and acute care psychiatrists need to have a higher index of suspicion, especially in settings where people are admitted rapidly for detoxification and stabilization and if the patient gives a history of synthetic cannabinoid use.  The commonest current coagulopathy in those settings is probably alcohol related and that is relatively rare.

Additional concerns would include the possibilities that the rodenticide could be sprayed on some cannabis plants and be ingested or smoked by people who believe they are using cannabis.  An associated concern is that the contaminated synthetic material was considered plant waste from cannabis products and just used as a carrier for the synthetic cannabinoids.  That is a potential reason why the synthetics were contaminated with brodifacoum in the first place.

As far as I know there have been no reports of the problem in cannabis smokers who were not using synthetic cannabinoids.

The authors of reference 1 point out that since cannabis is not regulated as an agricultural product there are no regulations about what can be applied to it when it is grown.  It seems like another disadvantage of a laissez-faire approach to drug regulation.

Coagulopathy is just another in a long list of reasons to stay away from synthetic cannabinoids and to beware of other toxic effects from street drugs.  There has always been some concern over what chemicals and biologicals end up in smoked or ingested cannabis. Rodenticide should be added to that list until it is effectively ruled out by sampling and testing of the products being sold.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  Franklin AB, Carlson PC, Rex A, Rockweit JT, Garza D, Culhane E, Volker SF,Dusek RJ, Shearn-Bochsler VI, Gabriel MW, Horak KE. Grass is not always greener: rodenticide exposure of a threatened species near marijuana growing operations. BMC Res Notes. 2018 Feb 2;11(1):94. doi: 10.1186/s13104-018-3206-z. PubMed PMID: 29391058;

2: Brodifacoum on ToxNet.


3: Minnesota Department of Health.  Health Advisory: Significant Bleeding Associated with Contaminated Synthetic Cannabinoids. April 5, 2018.

4:  Minnesota Department of Health.  Health Advisory Network.  See additional links.  


1:   Mechanism of warfarin slide at the top is from Visiscience slides online per their user agreement.

2:  Brodifacoum chemical structure from PubChem.


Saturday, May 26, 2018

Relief For the Sleep Deprived?

Sleep is a major problem for the majority of people who I see in clinical practice.  It is both a diagnostic feature and a primary disorder.  It is not uncommon for me to see people in their 30s or 40s who have had consistent sleep problems since childhood.  Environmental, medical problems, and alcohol/substance use are also common causes of insomnia.  After cessation of opioids, cannabis, or alcohol there can be disrupted sleep that lasts for months or longer. The treatment of insomnia is partially effective.  Behavioral methods like sleep hygiene measures and CBTi are useful for some people.  Medications can be helpful but they are a mixed bag for practitioners.  Sleep medications that are typically recommended have significant side effects including tolerance to the sedative effects that can lead to dose escalation and addiction.  The non-FDA approved medications like trazodone are widely used but routinely criticized in the literature for not having enough of an evidence base.  Physicians often face patients who are not sleeping well and ask for practical ways on catching up.  The news media lately has a lot of stories about the dangers of sleep deprivation creating some desperation in the sleep deprived population.  A common question is: "Can a sleep deprived person make up for lost sleep?" 

There was a very interesting study released by a research group this month on sleep and whether or not the sleep deprived can make up for lost sleep on the weekends.  The study looked at 38,015 participants in the Swedish National March Study who returned a general health questionnaire on medical history and lifestyle in 1997.  There were two questions about sleep:

How many hours  approximately, do you sleep during a workday/weekday night?

How many hours approximately, do you sleep per night on days off? 

The authors considered short sleep < 5 hours per night and long sleep > 9 hours per night.  The considered days off to be the equivalent of weekend sleep and simplified the response categories to reduce cells with low numbers of subjects.  The reference category was considered to be 7 hours.  The formed the following 6 categories based on that sleep classification and the pattern over the weekday/weekend (S=short, M=medium, L=-long):  SS, MM, LL, SML, ML, and LS.  Patient were following to the endpoints of death, emigration or study termination on December 31, 2010.

The authors used a Cox proportional hazards model with attained age to estimate mortality hazard ratios and 95% confidence intervals for each group adjusted for a number of variables including sex, BMI, smoking status,  physical activity, alcohol intake, educational level, shift work, and a weighted index based on an inpatient register.

The main finding with the correlations of mortality with short weekend sleep.  For subjects less that the age of 65, short weekend sleep was associated with a hazard ratio (HR) or 1.52 95% CI 1.15-2.02.  In other words subjects with short weekend sleep had a 52% greater mortality rate.  There was no different in mortality for short weekend sleep in subjects older than 65 years of age.  Forest plots were provided to look at adjusted and unadjusted HR across 5 sleep categories (≤ 5 hrs, 6 hrs, 7 hours, 8 hrs, ≥ 9 hrs).  A weekend sleep duration of ≤ 5 hours in subjects less than 65 clearly had the highest mortality ratio. In other analyses short sleep on both the weekdays and weekends and consistently long sleep were also associated with higher mortality.

Interestingly from a psychiatric perspective self reported sleep medication use did not alter the outcomes.  Sleep medication use was reported in every sleep category by 9.5 to 28% of the subjects in those categories (the short sleepers reporting more medication use).  Snoring, napping, restorative sleep, general health and high work demand did not affect results.  The initial model also corrected for shift work.

This is very interesting research because it suggests that there is a way to catch up on sleep debt at least on a short term basis.  Chronic sleep debt like the kind that physicians endure in medical school and residency training is probably gone forever.  But in clinical practice, it is theoretically possible to sleep in on the weekends after getting 5 hour blocks during the week and erase that debt - at least from  mortality standpoint.  Even though the authors seem to be doing a lot of analysis from 12 data points on a survey - the  structure of that data allowed them to look at sleep from a different perspective than it is typically analyzed from.  In their introductory section, they discuss the typical analysis focuses on typical sleep patterns and there are no distinctions between weekday and weekend hours.  Analyzing that data typically results in a J-shaped mortality curve with the highest mortality for too little sleep or a U-shaped mortality curve with highest mortality for too little and too much sleep.

The authors discuss the strength of their study (large N, good follow-up) and the potential weaknesses (misinterpretation of the questions by some subjects). From their exclusion process they did a good job of cleaning up the sample.  Their recommendation for closer follow-up studies on a longitudinal basis with more frequent data points is a good one.  From a clinical perspective, it would be useful to know what the time frame is that would allow for the cancellation of sleep debt.  Does it all have to happen in the space of a week or can you sleep very long at the end of two or three weeks and get back on track?  There may be some insights from people with prolonged insomnia from substance use (cannabis, methamphetamine, opioids, alcohol) and how they recover.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  Ă…kerstedt T, Ghilotti F, Grotta A, Zhao H, Adami HO, Trolle-Lagerros Y, Bellocco R. Sleep duration and mortality - Does weekend sleep matter? J Sleep Res. 2018 May 22:e12712. doi: 10.1111/jsr.12712. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 29790200.


Sleep duration on successive nights from the smartphone of a person who is off work on the 19th and the 24th and works 20-23 - showing total hours of sleep as 8.19, 5.15, 5.51, 5.45, 5.49, 8.17.  This is a workday/weekend pattern described by the authors in the study.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Wish I Had Said Some More About The Violence......

I shot a video for the 100 Miles 100 Stories charity yesterday.  Their mission is raise awareness for violence against healthcare workers.  They found me through a nurse that I used to work with who sustained a traumatic brain injury when she was assaulted in an emergency department.  The sequelae of that injury ended her career in nursing. The focus of this charity is to raise public awareness of the problem and hopefully find some solutions.  As I have posted on this blog many times, these incidents are generally preventable, but it requires both expertise and a major revision of the systems that most health professional work in every day. I had a meeting two weeks ago on the comments I could make in this area and the interview questions were based on that meeting.  I don't have a transcript or tape and the final version will be edited.  This is my recollection of what happened:

Q:  Tell us about your experience.

A:  I have been a psychiatrist for 32 years and about 22 of those years have been in acute care psychiatric settings at what is now called Regions Hospital.  It used to be St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center before it was acquired by HealthPartners.  For about 8 of those years a neurologist and I ran a clinic for Alzheimer's Disease and other dementias.

Q:  What kind of psychiatric diagnoses did you see?

A:  Bipolar disorder, major depression, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, personality disorders with a significant overlay of alcohol and substance use.

Q:  Were you ever assaulted?

A:  I was punched three times but there was no serious injury.  Threatening behavior was more a problem.  There were homicidal threats that had the most significant impact on me long term.  As an example, I started to be more conscious of home security and have home security and close circuit TV cameras installed.

The interview is biased on a personal point of view.  If I had been thinking more I could have mentioned what I had seen.  One psychiatrist punched and knocked out.  Another psychiatrist beaten up with a resulting career ending traumatic brain injury. Various injuries to nursing staff and nursing assistants who have the majority of contact with agitated and potentially aggressive patients.  One evening I was talking with nursing staff behind a window that we believed was shatterproof glass. Without warning the window exploded as a heavy chair sailed through it.  Being one step away from very serious injuries and deaths in many situations, but the downside is that may have seemed like an embellishment so I left it out.

Q:  Why do you think it is happening?

There are several reasons.  The lengths of stays in psychiatric units these days is either too long or too short.  People are discharged in 3 or 4 days or they are waiting there for weeks or months to go to a state hospital bed because they are committed.  Acute care inpatient units are not set up to accommodate people staying there that long.  When I interview people have been discharged from inpatients units they typically tell me that they were sitting around watching TV until they could convince somebody that they are not suicidal.

If we consider a person who is experiencing auditory hallucinations who goes to the emergency department for help they might not get admitted for that problem.  They will probably be told to go to an outpatient appointment in a month or two.  In the meantime - they are untreated and that symptoms gets worse.  If they come into the emergency department again, they may angry the second time.  The current system of care has a large circulating pool of partially stabilized or unstable patients that go between the ED, homelessness and homeless shelters, and acute care hospitals.

I should have used the term dangerousness.  I have written about it countless times on this blog but not in the interview.  Dangerousness is essentially the only way that people get admitted to inpatient psychiatric units any more.  That arbitrary business decision rations access to care for people who have also experienced rationing at a both the community level with less housing and at the state hospital level with a marked reduction is state hospital beds.

Q:  What do you think can be done about it?

Changes have to occur at two levels.  Government and business administrators have to open up access to more beds in both state hospitals and community housing.  There has has to be more enlightened management of those beds.  At the service provider level there needs to be a team approach to the problem.  Frequently if there is an assault related injury, there is a lot of silence and nobody talks about it.  Some splitting can occur and some disciplines may think that it can't happen to them.  The victims may blame themselves and become very isolated.  Administrators at every level need to support clinical teams to address this problem.  There needs to be in house experts to fix the problem and not outside consultants who typically know a lot less about problems and solutions.

Q:  What do you think is important about the 100 Miles 100 Stories Walk?

It raises public awareness about this issue and how it impacts health care workers. It might raise awareness about the expectation that it is part of the job and that many people expect health acre workers to accept it.  Hopefully it will also increase solidarity on this issue.

I should have added my opinion that there needs to be a zero tolerance rule for violence and aggression to healthcare workers.  They are after all doing their job taking care of people.

Q:  Is there anything else that you would like to cover?

I would like to mention that there are basically three groups the become violent in health care settings.  The first is people with severe mental illnesses who are making decisions based on a delusional thought process.  The second are people with acute or chronic intoxication states who are agitated or aggressive based on their use of an intoxicant.  The third group are people with personality disorders where aggression is a strategy or way of life.  Limits needs to be established with this group and they must be held accountable.

The interview ended at that point but there was obviously a lot more that could be said.  Like most people - I write a lot better than I speak.  I am sure that if you see the eventual clips I will be much less articulate and probably confabulated much of what I just wrote.

There is also a time constraint for these interviews and the consideration that the public probably wants to hear about the  general rather than the specific problems or proposed solutions. Certainly nobody has been flocking to this blog over the past years for my suggestions about violence or homicide prevention. 

I doubt that many people are aware of the fact that it is common that patients need to be physically restrained so that they don't injure themselves or anyone else.  I can recall being in an ICU setting when a young man suddenly got out of bed and started swinging an IV pole around his head.  An IV pole has a heavy metal base and anyone struck by that base would have been seriously injured.  He was doing this within a few feet of critically ill patients and the ICU nursing staff.  He was also delirious and completely unable to respond to verbal requests or guidance.  That is an illustration of how rapidly one of these situations can develop and also why there is a necessity for being able to respond to the problem rapidly.

I also might have discussed the informal triage system for dealing with violence or aggression.  In Minnesota not all hospitals will receive patients with this kind of problem.  Not all hospitals train their staff to physically intervene in an appropriate way.  In most health care facilities the training ends at how to approach the potentially aggressive patient and it assumes that the verbal intervention will be successful.  That will not work with very aggressive patients and training needs to include more specific physical measures.

There is also a lot of room to discuss environmental safety plans.  What is the physical design of the clinic or hospital ward?  Can changes in the design configuration provide additional safety for patients and staff.  In some cases it is just putting receptionists in safe areas where they are not in danger from walk ins or aggressive patients.  Does there need to be a law enforcement presence?  What about internal security?  What kind of plan needs to be in place to coordinate all of the personnel in emergencies?

Whatever the focus - these discussions need to get out there for the general public to consider.  The level of injuries to hospital staff and in some cases patients needs to improve greatly.  I emphasize again that the majority of these injuries affect nurses and nursing assistants.  Physicians have been  homicide victims as the result of some of this aggression.

In the cases of conscious directed violence - the perpetrators of that violence need to be prosecuted.  No health care employee should go to work every day fearing assault and in some cases disabling and career ending injuries.   

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


I was sent this link to an incident of emergency department violence from 1993.  That highlights the chronicity of the problem and the lack of effective solutions.  Quotes from the article:

"Health care workers noted, however, that the incident is only the most recent example of the rising tide of violence that has spilled over into the nation's urban emergency rooms."


"County-USC has been no exception. During the first six months of 1991, for example, security guards at the hospital responded to 1,400 reports of threats or attacks, six of which led to arrests. Among the assailants was a panhandler who approached four nurses in the cafeteria and plunged a pair of suture-removal scissors deep into one nurse's neck."