Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Doctors don't label"

In a rare statement of clarity amid the usual sensational spin this comment jumped out at me:

"Doctors don't label...Doctors diagnose, take care of, and treat.  That's not to say that something cannot be stigmatizing, but 'labeling' kind of gets right into the antipsychiatry component of it."  William T. Carpenter, MD  - Clinical Psychiatry News September 2012; p 3.

Dr. Carpenter is right and every psychiatrist knows it.  Psychiatrists don't label.  Psychiatrists diagnose.  Psychiatrists are very aware of the limitations of diagnosis given the the sociocultural and medical  contexts.  The psychiatric orientation is to be helpful to patients and the diagnosis is the focus of that treatment.  Furthermore, all psychiatric diagnosis and treatment is supposed to be confidential and there is no group of physicians who has tried to hold the line more against government and insurance companies eroding patient-physician confidentiality than psychiatrists. 

A significant part of this article about the content of a letter from the Society for Humanistic Psychology (Division 32 of the American Psychological Association).  Read the letter and draw your own conclusions.  The points of contention listed in the letter have been exposed in several other media contexts.  As I read through the letter there are several problems:

"This document was composed in recognition of, and with sensitivity to, the longstanding and congenial relationship between American psychologists and our psychiatrist colleagues."

I don't think that this is an accurate statement.  When I started out in psychiatry and was in my third year of residency the American Psychological Association decided to get more aggressive politically and their target was basically American psychiatry.   I won't rehash all of that ugliness but simply point out that things were far from congenial and in many areas remain problematic.   Much of those political efforts were based on the idea that organized psychiatry had an inordinate amount of control  over the treatment of mental illness.  Any observer - biased or unbiased should recognize that psychiatrists and physicians in general have been marginalized and the American Psychiatric Association is politically ineffective and weak.  Of course any other group of mental health providers is in the same boat. 

"Given lack of consensus as to the “primary” causes of mental distress, this proposed change may result in the labeling of sociopolitical deviance as mental disorder."

This is a comment on the new DSM5 definition of a mental illness, specifically that the new definition does not explicitly say that deviant behavior and conflicts with society are not mental disorders.  The current version states that these conflicts need to be the result of dysfunction within the individual.  It is hard for me to see a situation where this is relevant to the practice of psychiatry.  Is there really a case where I am going to diagnose a person in this situation with a mental disorder?  Definitely not and the reason is that I have been confronted with the situation many times before and pointed out that the conflict was not the product of a mental illness.  The authors here have focused primarily  on a lower threshold for diagnosis and how they are not confident about the clinical decision making skills of practitioners - but do not comment on the threshold part of the definition.  

"Increasing the number of people who qualify for a diagnosis may lead to excessive medicalization and stigmatization of transitive, even normative distress."

The risk of "medicalization" needs to be considered for a moment.  What is "medicalization"?  The implication of this letter at a practical level is that it involves an excessive use of medications.  Suspending the poor quality of many of those studies for a moment, what is the real driver of medication use in today's practice environment?  The minority of people taking any kind of psychiatric medication see psychiatrists.  The managed care industry and the government are clearly the driving force.  Current "evidence based" approaches are linked directly to medication use.  A checklist diagnosis and rating scale approach has been used to rapidly treat patients with antidepressants in primary care settings.  That approach alone has easily outpaced any DSM5 modifications.  Direct to consumer drug advertising compounds the issue of getting as many people on medications as possible.  You don't even have to read the DSM5 to see that medicalization has little to do with medical doctors.  In fact, managed care companies would clearly like to replace as many doctors as possible with "prescribers" who can fill prescriptions according to these protocols.  The pharmaceutical and managed care industries are far more interested in distilling psychiatric treatment down to a pill or a capsule than psychiatrists are.

The associated idea that psychiatrists may be the initiators of this medicalization or at least collude with it ignores psychiatric innovation that does not involve the prescription of medications.  On this blog alone, I have posted excellent examples of work done by Greist and Gunderson on innovative and highly successful non medication approaches to significant problems.  Dr. Greist's ideas have been presented to a wide audience that includes pharmaceutical companies.  His ideas about how to make effective psychotherapy widely available have been successfully applied in other countries.  Ignoring psychiatric innovation outside  of psychopharmacology is a curious phenomena, but it definitely makes it easier to see psychiatrists as the "medicalizers".  I am sure that both Greist and Gunderson would not see medications as the primary treatment for anxiety disorders or borderline personality disorder.

Once again, the focus on problems in the DSM5 leading to medicalization and stigmatization is clearly overemphasized.  There is no group of people more aware of the limitations of the current diagnostic system than psychiatrists.  There is no group of people better equipped to compensate for these deficiencies.  There is no group of people more aware of the stigma of mental illness and addiction.  Psychiatrists have a unique perspective in observing first hand how health care systems institutionalize stigma and use it to reduce the resources dedicated to treat these problems.  There should be no doubt that the DSM5 is being produced in what is considered the best interest of the American Psychiatric Association.  There should also be no doubt that the critiques of the process have their own interests and their opinions should be evaluated in that context.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

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