Thursday, March 15, 2012

How Can Psychiatry Save Itself? Part 2.

Ronald Pies, MD just published his second article in a two-part series on "How American Psychiatry Can Save Itself". This essay contains specific recommendations for change. I was surprised to see that it was written from the perspective of "the American public is disenchanted with psychiatry and how the profession needs to address these issues". He attributes the public relations problem to a number of factors including the lack of "robustly effective, well-tolerated treatments", ties to the pharmaceutical industry, the declining use of psychotherapy, the public's lack of understanding of current effective treatments, and essentially political attacks by anti-psychiatry groups and other sources.
It is disappointing to see the formulation of the problem as basically one of public relations. Dr. Pies observes that the public really doesn't care about what was or what is in the DSM or the model that is used for mental illness. It is historically obvious that the only reason that psychiatry has been tolerated over the years has been our availability to treat people with obvious problems. It is difficult to deny that mental illness exists when you have brought your catatonic family member into the emergency department because they have not been able to eat or drink for two days. That fact alone is the reason that decades of anti-psychiatry abuse has been a nuisance but has not destroyed the profession. The main problems these days is that it has morphed into a brisk business for many of our detractors and whatever legitimate media is out there does not seem to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.  In the case of psychiatry there is an incredible amount of chaff.
Dr. Pies has six fairly specific recommendations based on this public relations problem. I have listed them in table below along with my responses. This places him at a distinct advantage because I am in the position of reacting to his statements. I will offer my solutions further along in the article and hope for his rebuttal or the rebuttal of anyone else reading this article.

Dr. Pies
Dr. Dawson
1. Change the name of the DSM to the Manual of Neurobehavioral Disease or MND. Another option would be Manual of Psychiatric Disorders.
I generally avoid the term "behavioral" because it is a political term used by managed care companies to disenfranchise psychiatry or behavioral neurologists to suggest that they know more about human behavior than psychiatrists do.  Every time we use the word "behavioral" rather than psychiatry we lose to somebody.  Neuropsychiatry anyone?
2. Emphasize the importance of suffering and incapacity as hallmarks of disease and eliminate any condition that lacks those features.
I don't think the DSM is that confused in the "Cautionary Statement" or "Definition of Mental Disorder" (xxi) when it describes mental disorders as "a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in individual and that is associated with present distress or disability or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or loss of freedom.” There are additional details.
3. Separating clinical descriptions of disease from research oriented criteria using prototypes for the clinical descriptions.
This might be a useful public relations move but experienced clinicians already do this and there is some movement in DSM5 to already capture this, namely the elimination of schizophrenia subtypes.
4. Understand diagnostic categories as tools in the service of medical-ethical goals.
I think that experienced clinicians also currently do this.
5. Biological data is regarded as supporting but not finding disease categories and the diagnoses would remain clinical.
That is probably a state-of-the-art, but biomarkers may be fast approaching that can define more homogeneous categories of disease and more specific and successful treatments can be offered.
6. Parsimony with regard to the number of diagnostic categories.
Agreed and at some point we should be able to use mechanisms of disease to parse the categories. A hopeful but at this point speculative example would be the role of the ventral tegmental area in both addictions and amotivational syndromes.

From the opinions I have offered it should be apparent that I think this plan is a fairly weak one. In order to come up with a strong plan, the major problem affecting psychiatrists and the delivery of psychiatric services needs to be in clear focus. When I look at Dr. Pies suggested solutions he has public relations and the diagnostic manual in his focus. I suppose you could argue that public relations is always important and that the diagnostic manual is essentially a public relations nightmare particularly when you're considering the arguments of people who are not trained clinicians and who have their own agendas and are looking for easy press.  I don't think the American Psychiatric Association has the resources to engage the thousands of anti-psychiatry and special interest groups who want to make headlines by critiquing the DSM5.
In order to save American Psychiatry the problem needs to be clearly recognized. The single most destructive force to American Psychiatry without a doubt is managed-care and that includes managed care companies that are for-profit, managed care companies that are not-for-profit, pharmaceutical benefit managers, and government agencies that are using managed care strategies to ration psychiatric care.   Within the space of two decades they have essentially shut down half of the inpatient bed capacity, they have turned inpatient units into high-volume and very low quality discharge mills, they have created a similar assembly line in outpatient clinics, they have added hours of free work from physicians frequently to justify their financial decisions, and they claim to be one of the great purveyors of quality treatment in medicine in the United States. How can that travesty possibly be ignored? All of the other threats to American Psychiatry pale in comparison.  We have become a profession that is essentially defined by the managed care industry.
To reverse that trend and actually save psychiatry the following steps need to be taken:
1. Managed care, pharmaceutical benefit managers, and managed-care tactics being applied by the government and government proxies need to be clearly identified as the problem. There needs to be a concerted effort to reverse the political and tactical gains made by this industry and most importantly reclaiming the quality ground. The managed care industry is currently represented by NCQA, and its role as an accreditation entity. Anyone who has looked at their standards for mental health care should be appalled. Every professional organization that has psychiatrists as members should be critiquing this organization and posting their own quality standards.
2. Professional psychiatric organizations need to maintain the edge in terms of quality and standard of care guidelines. We cannot afford to have guidelines that are 5 to 10 years out of date they need to be up-to-date and current. If the American Psychiatric Association is not up to the task, other professional societies should post current guidelines in their areas of expertise. You cannot possibly win political battles against an industry special interest group by using dated and incomplete guidelines and standards of care. An excellent example of psychopharmacology guidelines is available on the British Association of Psychopharmacology website.
3. The education of future psychiatrists is critical and that makes the issue of managed care and assembly-line psychiatry an even more immediate problem. We cannot possibly expect psychiatrists to train for an additional one or two years if they are going to be paid $22 or less to see a patient. There are not enough "medication management" visits in the world to fund for that additional training and a professional salary. Unless concrete changes occur in the practice landscape the future of current psychiatric training is at risk and there is no point in speculating on how it can be enhanced.
4. In the event that adequate funding is available for training and the future profession I would recommend changes in the total time of residency and psychotherapy training but in a different manner than that suggested by Pies.  I would opt for adding a two-year neuroscience rotation and pool resources with departments of neurology and neurosurgery for a joint rotation to focus on the latest neuroscience applications to psychiatry, neurology, and neurosurgery. In the near future genomics and neuroscience will be required training and the associated philosophy can be taught at the same time during discussions of modeling at various levels.
In terms of psychotherapy, the first thing that we can do is recognize the progress that has been made in residency programs as well documented in the Archives article by Weissman, at al.  It was not that long ago that a number of "biological psychiatrists" were walking around and annoying the rest of us by proclaiming that "I don't do talk therapy".  A psychiatrist trained in psychotherapy applies that continuously in their work and uses it to inform the structure of treatment. Some of the best psychiatrists that I have encountered do psychotherapy in as little as 10 or 20 minutes and the patients they saw during that time found those discussions to be very beneficial.
Psychotherapy today can also be informed by the New England Journal of Medicine article written by Kandel over 30 years ago when he described how neuronal plasticity is affected by human encounters. The teaching of psychotherapy today can be used both as a technical tool to teach patients and a heuristic tool to teach staff and residents about human consciousness and its biological basis. Newer forms of psychotherapy such as Acceptance Commitment Therapy and Mentalizing therapy provide theories and an explicit roadmap and how to provide research proven and effective psychotherapy that takes human consciousness into account.
5. Political attacks by prominent government officials cannot be tolerated. It is no longer acceptable to suggest that all psychiatrists are corrupted because some psychiatrists are being paid to give presentations for drug companies or to do research. The suggestion that the DSM5 is corrupted, by ties to the pharmaceutical industry can be dealt with. There are clear strategies to deal with some of the blanket claims by Congressional critics.  I can never understand how an entire profession became criticized because of the fact that some members were legitimately being paid to work by the pharmaceutical industry. I cannot understand how a member of Congress can decide to investigate private employment arrangements between an employee and employer or say nothing when no problems are found. I cannot understand how member of Congress with significant conflicts of interest is allowed to treat our profession with impunity when his conflicts of interest are never discussed.
6. Board certification has become a business that is rapidly aligning itself with the business of running medical boards and managed-care corporations. The goal of ongoing professional education should be to bring all practitioners up to the same standards and there is no reason that board examinations are necessary. There is no evidence that they can achieve that goal. This was clearly an arbitrary political decision by the American Board of Medical Specialties and it should not be tolerated by practitioners in the field. There is precedent for forming independent boards and I would refer to the American Society of Addiction Medicine as a clear example. If the ABMS, is no longer relevant - a better solution would be to form a new board that meets the needs of clinicians instead of purported political goals.
7. Quality based standardization of local practice is an attainable goal. One of the practical problems in any medical specialty is the fact that there are outliers. There is a robust solution to this and the best example I can think of is the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Institute Dementia Diagnostic Clinic Network.  The network is a statewide collaboration of independent clinics that receive guidance and updates from a central university-based clinic specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of dementias. Patients anywhere in the state of Wisconsin or their physicians can refer to a local clinic to receive state-of-the-art diagnostics and treatment recommendations. This model solves two problems for psychiatry. The first is access to state-of-the-art psychiatric treatment and the second is practice drift by practitioners especially the outliers. It also solves a third problem of ongoing education.  There is no reason why collaborative networks like this one could not be established for mood disorders, addiction, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders. Training at all levels could be guided by the principle that psychiatric residents need to have the necessary skills to get into these networks and implement the guidance suggested by the central academic center.
That is the path I would take to save American psychiatry. It is not an easy path but it is a realistic one. Any psychiatrist who has been practicing for the past 10 or 20 years realizes that the practice environment has deteriorated rapidly and despite all of the talk about a shortage of psychiatrists, the current lot of psychiatrists is being worked to death and they are trapped in a paradigm that results in high volume and low quality work.  The main problem is that there is no foreseeable professional organization that can carry it out. The APA does not have the political will, expertise, or leadership to do it and in that regard the future does not look good. I think that also implies that the APA has really underestimated how far psychiatry has fallen and how much they have played a role in that fall.  I see an occasional glimmer of hope, but as long as we have an ineffective structure and an election process that rewards academic achievement rather than a vision for psychiatry in the 21st century, progress will remain difficult if not impossible. We have already been replaced by a generation of "prescribers" in some areas and managed-care and the government would not complain if that occurred everywhere.
George Dawson, MD
Ronald Pies, MD.  How American Psychiatry Can Save Itself: Part 2.  Psychiatric Times March 2012, vol XXIX, No 3: 1, 6-8.

Myrna M. Weissman; Helen Verdeli; Marc J. Gameroff; Sarah E. Bledsoe; Kathryn Betts; Laura Mufson; Heidi Fitterling; Priya Wickramaratne. National Survey of Psychotherapy Training in Psychiatry, Psychology, and Social Work.  Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006;63(8):925-934.


  1. Mechanism. We don't have a clue about causality in this field. We still think everything is a "reaction" like in DSM-I, but without elucidating mechanism we're just guessing, and we should admit it.

  2. I don't think the situation is quite that drastic. Psychiatry is the only field that I know of where the word "heuristic" is repeatedly used to qualify statements about mechanism. In the meantime, the purported mechanisms in other fields that we were once taught as being definitive - keep changing. I think that we have always used qualifiers and none of the other specialties does. If they had, maybe I would not have been monitoring Swan-Ganz catheters and central lines in all of those patients when I was an intern.