Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On the Validity of Pseudopatients

Every now and again the detractors and critics of psychiatry like to march out the results of an old study as "proof" of the lack of validity of psychiatric diagnoses.  In that study,  8 pseudopatients feigned mental illness to gain admission to 12 different psychiatric hospitals.  The conclusion of the study author was widely seen as having significant impact on the profession, but that conclusion seems to have been largely retrospective.  I started my training about a decade later and there were no residuals at that time.  I learned about the study largely through the work of antipsychiatrists and psychiatric critics.

Several obvious questions are never asked or answered by the promoters of this test as an adequate paradigm.  The first and most obvious one is why this has not been done in other fields of medicine.  It would certainly be easy to do.  I could easily walk into any emergency department in the US and get admitted to a Medicine or Surgical service with a faked diagnosis.  I know this for a fact, because one of the roles of consulting psychiatrists to Medicine and Surgery services is to confront the people who have faked illness in order to be admitted.  Kety (9) uses a more blunt example in response to the original pseudopatient experiment (1):

"If I were to drink a quart of blood and, concealing what I had done, come to the emergency room of any hospital vomiting blood, the behavior of the staff would be quite predictable. If they labeled and treated me as having a bleeding peptic ulcer, I doubt that I could argue convincingly that medical science does not know how to diagnose that condition. "(9)

I also know that this happens because of the current epidemic of prescription opiate abuse and the problem of drug seeking and being successful at it.  An estimated 39% of diverted drugs (7) come from "doctor shopping."  By definition that involves presenting yourself to a physician in a way to get additional medications.  In the case of prescription opioids that usually means either faking a pain disorder or misrepresenting pain severity.  So it is well established that medical and surgical illness well outside of the purview of psychiatry can be faked.  And yet to my knowledge, there is hardly any research on this topic and nobody is suggesting that medical diagnoses don't exist because they can be faked.  Does that mean the researchers consider the time of these other doctors too valuable to waste?  More likely it did not fit a preset research agenda.

The second obvious question has to do with conflict of interest.  It is currently in vogue to suggest that psychiatrists are swayed in their prescribing practices by incentives ranging from a free pen to a free meal.  Compensation as a company employee or to give lectures is also thought of as a compromising incentive. The free pen/free meal incentive is pretty much historical at this time.  What about intentionally misrepresenting yourself?  What is the conflict of interest involved at that level and how neutral can you stay when you are trying to escape detection in order to prove a point?  A vague script like a mono-symptomatic presentation of schizophrenia should suggest that the intent is to escape detection.  How should a person with a vague script act when they are face to face with a real clinician?  The logical conclusion is that they would be as evasive as possible even if they were adhering to that protocol.

The bottom line is that the pseudopatient experiments were seriously flawed out of the box.  Continuing to promote them as meaningful reflects a serious lack of scholarship in reading the relevant literature and a need to suspend the reality that in fact mental illness does exist, that distinctions can be made among various types of mental illness, and that those distinctions are useful to psychiatrists trying to help people with those problems.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

1: Rosenhan DL. On being sane in insane places. Science. 1973 Jan 19;179(4070):250-8. PubMed PMID: 4683124.

2: Fleischman PR, Israel JV, Burr WA, Hoaken PC, Thaler OF, Zucker HD, Hanley J, Ostow M, Lieberman LR, Hunter FM, Pinsker H, Blair SM, Reich W, Wiedeman GH, Pattison EM, Rosenhan DL. Psychiatric diagnosis. Science. 1973 Apr 27;180(4084):356-69. PubMed PMID: 17771687.

3: Bulmer M. Are pseudo-patient studies justified? J Med Ethics. 1982 Jun;8(2):65-71. PubMed PMID: 7108909; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC1059372.

4: Spitzer RL, Lilienfeld SO, Miller MB. Rosenhan revisited: the scientific credibility of Lauren Slater's pseudopatient diagnosis study. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2005 Nov;193(11):734-9. PubMed PMID: 1626092

5: Spitzer RL. More on pseudoscience in science and the case for psychiatric diagnosis. A critique of D.L. Rosenhan's "On Being Sane in Insane Places" and "The Contextual Nature of Psychiatric Diagnosis". Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1976 Apr;33(4):459-70. PubMed PMID: 938183.

6: Zimmerman M. Pseudopatient or pseudoscience: a reviewer's perspective. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2005 Nov;193(11):740-2. PubMed PMID: 16260928.

7: Inciardi JA, Surratt HL, Cicero TJ, Kurtz SP, Martin SS, Parrino MW. The "black box" of prescription drug diversion. J Addict Dis. 2009 Oct;28(4):332-47.  PubMed PMID: 20155603; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2824903.

8: Millon T. Reflections on Rosenhan's "On being sane in insane places". J AbnormPsychol. 1975 Oct;84(5):456-61. PubMed PMID: 1194506.

9: Kety SS. From rationalization to reason. Am J Psychiatry. 1974 Sep;131(9):957-63. PubMed PMID: 4413516.


  1. Thanks for the always well thought statements. I find very distressing how this particular "study" byrosenhan was given so much attention and noone seemed motivated enough to try it out with medical and surgical fields too. Heck, that would have probably been more helpfulsince i would have provided data to correlate and compare with psychiatric services and diagnostic practices. As a new resident, it surprises me just how much pressure,critique,misconceptions,stigma and history we as a field have to push against. That being said, even if our diagnostic capabilities today are just as impaired, incomplete or flawed, i find it hard to believe that anyone currently suffering or thathas personally withnessed the suffering of mentally ill patients can deny the benefit of psychiatric treatment.

  2. There are two interesting lines of study looking at medical and neurological patients. One of them started as unexplained medical symptoms showing that a substantial number of symptoms (25-50% in some studies) are unexplained even after extensive investigation. That is an eye opener when medical training suggests that if you are compulsive and do a good job the correct diagnosis follows. The other looks at the importance of context in diagnosis. In psychiatry we have always needed to attend to context and there was a good study of internists looking at this issue. I hope to add much more on that as time goes by. Thanks for your comments and I think that residents need to be prepared to respond to these criticisms. I don't think that it is an accident that psychiatry is singled out.

  3. very useful i believe that Rosenhans study cannot be as reliable as he would have liked. There are so many factors, especially the one being that he did not submit the names of the hospitals in which the Pseudopatients attended therefore the hospitals could not make a return statement to his articles. His work definitely had to be scrutinized for this.