Saturday, June 29, 2013
Intermittent Explosive Disorder - Dr. Frances main complaint about this diagnosis is that is "lacks the needed exclusions to exclude the other more common causes of violent behavior." The diagnostic criteria actually contains the exclusion:
F. The recurrent aggressive outbursts are not better explained by another mental disorder.....and are not attributable to another medical condition.....or to the physiological effects of a substance.
Specific examples are given and there is also an exclusion for adjustment disorders in children. The actual number of exclusionary diagnoses listed are essentially the same as DSM-IV and the discussion in the differential diagnosis is more extensive (p 612-613). My problem is that I don't think this diagnosis actually exists. That statement comes from over two decades of experience in acute care inpatient psychiatry, community psychiatry, and hospital psychiatry. These are all settings on the front lines of aggressive behavior. When the police encounter aggression and there is any question of an intoxication, medical problem, or mental disorder associated with that behavior - those people are brought in to settings where acute care psychiatrists are involved. In my experience of assessing extreme aggression up to and including homicide I have never seen a single case where the outbursts were not better explained by another mental disorder. I don't agree that the exclusion criteria are any different. I don't believe that this disorder exists. If it does, the prevalence is so low that this acute care psychiatrist has not seen it in thousands of evaluations of aggressive behavior.
Mild Neurocognitive Disorder - Dr. Frances complaint about this diagnosis is "so impossibly vague that it includes me, my wife and most of our friends. It will cause unnecessary worry and a rush to useless and expensive testing."
As I read through these criteria I have a much different perspective. For about 10 years I ran a Geriatric Psychiatry and Memory Disorders Clinic where we did comprehensive assessments of patients with cognitive problems. I worked with a nurse who would collect detailed information on patient's functional and cognitive capacity before they came into the clinic for my assessment. A significant number of those patients had a strictly subjective complaint about their memory or cognition. A large percentage of these patients did not have any insight into the severity of their problem and their typical assessment was: "My memory is no different than any other 60 or 70 year old." Even though we had generally spent about three hours of assessment time with each patient, at the end of my evaluation we often did not have a clear diagnosis. We would stick with that person until we did and often times the outcomes were surprising. We had striking examples of chronic delirious states where the patient was given a diagnosis of dementia based on on neuropsychological testing, and with treatment and reassurance we observed their cognition to clear completely and they were restored to normal cognitive function.
I see the diagnosis of Mild Neurocognitive Disorder as a portal to that level of care. Based on the list of 10 brain diseases and other medical conditions listed as specifiers the authors of this criteria clearly had that intent. It is clear to me that any clinic with a high standard of care for patients with cognitive disorders like my clinic had can use this diagnosis both as part of the continuum to more Major Neurocognitive Disorders associated with progressive neurodegenerative dementias and to provide high quality assessments for patients with concerns about any cognitive changes. Keep in mind that the typical managed care model would use a crude screening test and possibly refer for other psychological testing. There might not be a physician in the loop who can make the necessary assessments and diagnoses. Current research in this area also points to the need to identify patients as early as possible, especially as treatments become available.
On these two points I guess I am to the right of Dr. Frances on Intermittent Explosive Disorder and to the left on Mild Neurocognitive Disorder. But I think the entire argument misses the mark if we think about the issue of psychiatric diagnosis and where the DSM fits in. Any DSM cannot be used like a phone book to classify hundreds of different presentations to a Memory Disorder and Geriatric Psychiatry Clinic. The unique conscious states of those individuals and their relative levels of impairment can only be determined by a comprehensive evaluation by a physician who is knowledgeable in all of the possible brain diseases that are suggested as etiologies. Apart from the obvious increase in complexity for anything that is determined by a central nervous system, getting a diagnosis of Mild Neurocognitive Disorder is no different than getting a diagnosis of "Neck pain" or "Ankle pain" from a primary care physician. And yes - those primary care diagnoses are very common.
The idea that there are precise criteria that can be written down and applied to make definitive diagnoses is a common misconception of the DSM and other diagnostic schemes. To emphasize that point, I will end with a quote from Harold Merskey, FRCP, FRCPsych:
"Medical classification lacks the rigor either of the telephone directory or the periodic table."
That is all medical classification and not just the DSM-5. A good starting point toward realizing the truth in this quote is to stop looking at the DSM-5 like it is a phone book. You don't get a psychiatric diagnosis from the DSM-5.
You get a psychiatric diagnosis from a psychiatrist.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Merskey H. The taxonomy of pain. Med Clin North Am. 2007 Jan;91(1):13-20, vii. PubMed PMID: 17164101
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
"Our findings do not imply that overall spending fell for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts in 2009-2010."
and a paragraph later:
"This result makes it likely that total Blue Cross Blue Shield payments to groups in 2010 exceeded medical savings achieved by the group that year."
Sullivan's analysis here is dead-on, especially the idea that "medical savings" can be parsed from overall savings when there is suddenly a large managed care infrastructure. From some of the places where I have worked, this means bringing in a raft of middle managers who provide no service and generate no income to "manage' the people who are actually providing the care. In some settings that could mean a "manager" for every 5 - 10 physicians. If your goal is to cut reimbursement to the providers by just paying them less or sending them fewer referrals while adding a costly overhead of a number of managers who think they can translate their ideas about business into better clinical care - that seems like a recipe for higher costs, record physician dissatisfaction, and disregard for professional quality based guidelines. Sullivan points out that this specific problem in managed care research has been around since the 1990's
The "higher quality" issue is as interesting. I encourage anyone interested to download the paper because it is only free until Sunday June 30. As you read it, take a look at the table labeled "Exhibit 4". It is a table of quality care measures across both the control groups and the intervention groups. Although many of the variables are easily defined a couple of issues appear to be clear. Many seem to be process variables. In other words, just keeping track of variables and making sure that you are ticking them off gives you more credit. This is standard procedure in a managed care environment with more case managers. They can literally be assigned to remind physicians or ward teams to do tasks on a time frame that gives them credit for the process variable. More administrative manpower should equate to a larger percentage of process variables.
I note that within the quality variables there are two that apply to psychiatry - Depression: Short Term Rx and Depression: Long Term Rx. There are no significant differences across that study period at the P<0.05 level. This is interesting at a couple of levels. First, if this is actually the number of depressed people treated the change after the managed care intervention is not significant. Secondly, what measures are used to make this determination. Are these actually depressed people or are they patients scoring above a certain cutoff on a PHQ-9 rating scale? Third, is the change in percentage of patients treated a legitimate quality marker? Aren't we more interested in retention in treatment and actual treatment of individual patients treated into remission rather than a cross sectional look at the percentage of patients treated?
The scientific concerns about this paper are numerous. Like all research (and I mean all research) there are political implications. The defined intervention here of the Alternate Quality Contract, is basically a primary care physician as gatekeeper model that consumers rejected over a decade ago. At that point in time, managed care organizations realized that they would need to compete on the basis of providing direct access to specialty care without primary care referrals. The adaption of the MCOs was to hire their own specialists and build speciality clinics. The article describes this as basically the "patient centered medical home" (p 1886). I wonder if the average consumer realizes that the medical home is really a primary care gatekeeper system from the past?
I can't help stressing the importance of article like this one and all research that purports to save money with larger administrative structures that are there in a large part to supervise physicians rather than create administrative efficiencies. There is no better example than the non-existent mental health system for what this kind of rationing and administrative excess can create. Diverting money from the direct provision of clinical care into complicated forms of administrative overhead needs to be measured accurately in all of these studies.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
From this week's American Medical News:
"....Perry A. Pugno, MD, MPH, vice president for education for the American Academy of Family Physicians, is not surprised that he hasn't heard about DSM-5 from the organization's members.
'From a pragmatic perspective, we don't use (the manual) very much,' he said. 'Most of the things we see we already know the diagnostic criteria for them.' " (page 12, AMEDNEWS, June 17, 2013).
Remember I also said that psychiatrists are not memorizing the DSM-5 either, for a similar reason.
As I think about what happened in the press before the release of DSM-5, mass hysteria is not a bad phrase. Mass psychogenic illness is probably more politically correct these days but some experts consider an anxious form and a somatic form. There are numerous examples of each and some references suggest that it is compounded by the presence of social media. At any rate, the dynamic is very similar to the critical DSM-5 frenzy prior to the release. In both cases, it can start as a rumor or speculative theory. If that speculation sounds plausible to a larger group it is accepted and built upon. At some point the response to the speculation is critical. Will some experts step in and confirm the original speculation or introduce their own shocking hypotheses? The reaction of the authorities takes it to the next level. Will they seem to take the problem seriously. Media coverage makes things worse. Will additional systems be activated to broaden the response? Momentum builds and before you know it the anxiety or somatic symptoms are linked with a totally implausible hypothesis. Some reviews suggest that treatment involves separating the affected individuals and keeping them out of the limelight for a while until the symptoms fade away. As a psychiatrist who has treated many cases of conversion disorders with neurological symptoms using psychotherapy, I can't imagine competing with several "experts" in the media all having their own theories about the problem. My guess is that my therapy would be either neutralized or severely protracted.
A lot of these things happened in the run up to the DSM-5. So I am using mass hysteria here as a metaphor and not a "diagnosis". I thought I should clarify that because I fully expect that somebody would accuse me of that and go on to suggest that I am a control agent for somebody (?)
It is also not a diagnosis because it is not in DSM-5 or DSM-IV for that matter.
Hopefully cooler heads will prevail in the next big public controversy about psychiatry. But I doubt it.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Monday, June 17, 2013
Wait a minute - I thought psychiatrists were the Big Pharma stooges who wanted to over prescribe antidepressants and get everyone on them? Well no - it turns out that there are many government and insurance company incentives to assure that you have ultra rapid access to antidepressants even when psychiatry is out of the loop. You don't need a DSM-5 diagnosis. You don't need to see a psychiatrist. If you pulled up the diagram in JAMA, you would discover that the consulting psychiatrist here has no direct contact with the patient. In fact, about all that you need to do is complete a checklist.
Copyright restrictions prevent me from posting the diagram here even though I am a long time member of both organizations publishing them. I do think that listing the specific roles of the psychiatrist, the care manager and the primary care physician in this model is fair and that is contained in the table below:
Monitors all patients in the practice
Tracks treatment response
May offer brief psychotherapy
Describes patient symptoms and response to treatment to psychiatrist.
Informs Primary care Physician of treatment recommendations from the psychiatrist
Primary Care Physician
Makes initial diagnosis and prescribes medication
Modifies treatment based on recommendations from psychiatrist
Makes treatment (medication) recommendations.
Provides regular psychiatric supervision.
Has no direct contact with the patient.
see JAMA, June 19, 2013-Vol 309, No. 23, p2426.
As predicted in my original post, the psychiatrist here is so marginalized they are close to falling off the page. And let's talk about what is really happening here. This is all about a patient coming in and being given a PHQ-9 depression screening inventory. For those of you not familiar with this instrument you can click on it here. It generally takes most patients anywhere from 1 - 3 minutes to check off the boxes. Conceivably that could lead to a diagnosis of depression in a few more minutes in the primary care clinic. At that point the patient enters the antidepressant algorithm and they are they are officially being treated. The care manager reports the PHQ-9 scores of those who do not improve to the "supervising" psychiatrist and gets a recommendation to modify treatment.
This is the model that the APA has apparently signed off on and of course it is ideal for the Affordable Care Act. It is the ultimate in affordability. The psychiatrist doesn't even see the patient - so in whatever grand billing scheme the ACA comes up with - they won't even submit a billing statement. The government and the insurance industry have finally achieved what they could only come close to in the past - psychiatrists working for free. Of course we will probably have to endure a decade or so of rhetoric on cost effectiveness and efficiency, etc. before anyone will admit that.
Keep in mind what the original government backed model for treating depression was over 20 years ago and you will end up shaking your head like I do every day. Quality has left the building.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Sunday, June 9, 2013
I debated putting "reform" in quotes. The term has essentially become meaningless. I have been hearing about health care reform for over 20 years and things continue to get worse and worse. They get worse at a much faster rate whenever mental health care reform is considered. I won't belabor the facts that I have already listed here before, but I witnessed an event yesterday to highlight why any reform of the mental health system is completely hopeless at this point.
The event was a panel discussion entitled "Many Perspectives on Patient-Centered Care and Building a Stronger Mental Health System". There were 5 panelists including two psychiatrists, a local celebrity, a reporter, and a mental health advocate. It was scheduled as a one hour event and I left at about the 1:05 point. The hour began with the panelists disclosing their personal experiences with the system and what that seemed to imply for reform. There were stories about a system that is fairly refractory to input. Psychiatrists can't get people hospitalized when it is a true emergency, the family can't get input into the clinicians treating their loved ones, and there is minimal if any cross talk among physicians. There were two stories of misdiagnosis, in one case over a period of 20-30 years. The problem of documentation came up and the fact that there seems to be "no narrative" any more about the patient's diagnosis and problems - only check lists and electronic health record forms.
After the initial presentations the audience got involved. The audience was essentially all psychiatrists and the solutions were predictably more infuriating anecdotes, workarounds, and tales of the one unique person who might be able to save the day. From the panel, the advocacy standpoint seemed to be that progress was being made and that no more hospital beds were necessary or at least they should be discussed as an absolute last resort since they are the most expensive treatment option. That discussion focused on a point by an audience member who I would consider to be one of the top experts in child and adolescent mental health in the state when he mentioned there were only "2.5 acute care beds in the State" available for children in crisis. I may have missed the actual solutions because I had to leave the meeting. I have seen meetings and panels like this before and they go nowhere.
So what is the problem and what can be done about it?
The problem is quite simply managed care and all of its permutations. I waited for 65 minutes and nobody uttered the word. Managed care and all of its special interests is directly responsible for the ridiculous time constraints on clinicians. There is no time for a complex diagnostic evaluation much less time to talk with the family. It is responsible for the rationed inpatient beds and the lack of bed capacity. It is responsible the fact that systems of care are set up to optimize cash flow to large health care organizations rather than the quality of care. There is perhaps no better example than what currently passes for inpatient psychiatric care. We currently have case managers running the care of hospitalized patients and telling their psychiatrists when to discharge them. I talked directly with an inpatient psychiatrist the other day who told me that case managers and social workers at his hospital frequently have the discharge plan set up before he sees and assesses the patient. They simply tell him that the patient can be discharged. All in the service of making sure that nobody extends beyond the DRG payment and the hospital continues to make money. Inpatient units seem to have become holding tanks for people to sit around until they are "cleared" for discharge. That typically involves sitting around on a secure psychiatric unit and answering questions about whether or not you might be "suicidal" until you can be released. All of this flows from the ridiculous managed care concept that "dangerousness" is the only reason people need to be on a psychiatric unit. All of that occurring at a time when mental health advocates are concerned about stigmatizing the mentally ill as violent. Is it possible that psychiatrists have become so hopeless about reversing the trend of business friendly but otherwise irrational rationing that they avoid even talking about it anymore? I think that is more than likely.
Outpatient care is not much better. Some of the panelists were talking about the virtues of outpatient care where there is a team that knows the patient and everything is idyllic. There is no reason to expect that an outpatient case manager is any more virtuous than an inpatient one. I have talked with many psychiatrists who notice that their care is basically completely marginalized by low to mid level bureaucrats who have no professional responsibility to the patient. I have be pointing this out for 20 years and recently other physicians are also talking about the problem.
As long as you pretend that making money off rationing your care and treating you is not a conflict of interest - the system will continue to deteriorate. As long as nobody acknowledges that psychiatrists have been looking at "cost effective" care in the rear view mirror for the past 20 years - reasonable change is impossible. As long as nobody in the room can clearly say "First of all there is no system and second, managed care and the associated rationing and low quality are the real problems here" - reform will remain meaningless political rhetoric.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Jerry A. Singer, MD. How Government Killed the Medical Profession Reason May 2013.
The first section was an overview of the history. The original DSM was published in 1952, but before that there were several efforts to classify mental disorders dating back to ancient times. Some of the systems persisted for hundreds of years. He credited Jean-Etienne Esquirol (1772-1840) as one of the innovators of modern classification. The philosophical approaches to the subsequent DSMs were reviewed and they generally correlate with the theories of the day.
The development of DSM-5 began in 1999. The original goals included the definition of mental illness, dimensional criteria, addressing mental illness across the lifespan, and to possibly address how mental disorders were affected by various contexts such as sex and culture. Darrel Regier, MD was recruited from the NIMH to coordinate the development of DSM-5 in the year 2000. Between 2003 and 2008 there were 13 international conferences where the researchers wrote about specific diagnostic issues and developed a research agenda. This produced over 100 scientific papers that were compiled for use as reference volumes. As far as I can tell the people on the ground on this issue was the DSM Task Force and the Work Groups. The Task Force addressed conceptual issues like spectrum disorders, the interface with general medicine, functional impairment, measurement and assessment, gender and culture and developmental issues. The Work Groups met weekly or in some cases twice a week by conference call and twice a year in person. The work groups had several goals including revising the diagnostic criteria according to a review of the research, expert consensus and "targeted research analyses". No cost estimate of this multi-year infrastructure was given.
Like any volume of this nature the originators had some guiding principles including a focus on utility to clinicians, maintaining historical continuity with previous editions, and the changes needed to be guided by the research evidence. The most interesting political aspect of this process was the elimination of people closely involved in the development of DSM-IV in order to encourage "out of the box" thinking. This was a conscious decision and I have not seen it disclosed by some of the professional critics out there.
Final approval of the DSM occurred after feedback was received through the DSM-5 web site. There were thousands of comments from individuals, clinicians and advocacy organizations. Field trial data was analyzed and discussed. A scientific committee reviewed the actual data behind the diagnostic revisions and confirmed it. Hundreds of expert reviewers considered the risks in revising the diagnoses. The APA Assembly voted to approve in November 2012.
Some of the criticisms of the DSM-5 were discussed in about 4 slides. Dr. Grant was aware of all of the major criticisms and I have reviewed most of them here on this blog such as the issue of diagnostic proliferation. Dr. Grant's lecture contained this graphic for comparison:
What about the final product? The DSM-5 ends up including 19 major diagnostic classes. Some of the highlights include moving some disorders around. Obsessive-compulsive disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were moved out of the Anxiety Disorders section to their own separate categories. Bipolar and Depressive Disorders each have their own diagnostic class instead of both being placed in a Mood Disorders class. Adjustment Disorders have been moved into the Trauma and Stress Related Disorders class and there are two new subtypes. As previously noted here, all of the Schizophrenia subtypes have been eliminated. The Multiaxial System of diagnosis has been scrapped. One of the changes impacting the practice of addiction psychiatry is the elimination of the categories of Substance Abuse and Substance Dependence and collapsing them into a Substance Use Disorder. Panic attacks can now be used as a symptom of another disorder without having to specify that the person has panic disorder and that is a pattern I have observed over the course of my career. The controversial Personality Disorders section is unchanged but there is a hybrid diagnostic system that includes dimensional symptoms, the details of which (I think) are in the Appendix. Mapped onto all of the diagnostic classification and criteria changes are a number of subtypes and specifiers as well as a number of ways to specify diagnostic certainty. As with previous editions since DSM-III there is a mental disorder definition that indicates that behavior or criteria are not enough. There must be functional impairment or distress. The definition specifies that socially deviant behavior or conflicts between the individual and society do not constitute a mental illness unless that was the actual source of the conflict.
The overall impression at the end of these lectures was that this was a massive 18 year effort by the APA and hundreds and possibly thousands of volunteer psychiatrists and psychologists. None of those volunteers has a financial stake in the final product. Many of the criticisms were addressed in the process and many of the critics have a financial stake in the DSM-5 criticism industry. The criticisms of the DSM-5 seem trivial compared with the process and built in safeguards. The DSM-5 was also designed to be updated online instead of waiting for another massive effort to start to make modifications, hence this is not DSM-5 but DSM-5.0.
If Dr. Grant is lecturing in your area and you are a psychiatrist or a psychiatrist in training, these lectures are well worth attending. If you have a chance to look at his Guidebook, I think that it will be a very interesting read.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Supplementary 1: The DSM-5 Guidebook by Donald W. Black, MD and Jon E. Grant, MD came out in March 2014. Table 1. (p. xxiii) lists the total diagnoses is DSM-5 as 157 excluding "other specified and unspecified disorders".
Thursday, June 6, 2013
Since the 1970s, the political climate in the US has focused on being as pro-business as possible. Congress practically invented the credit reporting industry and in turn that industry made it easy for businesses to change your fees based on a credit report number. What you have to pay for home and auto insurance can be based solely on your credit rating and independent of whether or not you have ever missed a payment. It turns out that competitiveness is little more than political hyperbole. But the politicians in Washington did not stop there. The financial services industry is currently a multi-trillion dollar enterprise with little regulation or oversight that has essentially placed all Americans at financial risk. There is no better proof than the fact that there are currently no safe investments and that some advisors are suggesting that prospective retirees need as least $1 million dollars in savings and $240,000 for medical expenses in addition to whatever is available in Medicare and Social Security. Congress's retirement invention the 401K has surprisingly few accounts with that kind of money.
How can a government that puts all of its citizens at financial risk all of the time manage the health care of those same citizens? It is a loaded question and the answer is it cannot. The idea that an administration has an initiative to "increase understanding and awareness of mental illness" at this point in time is mind numbing in many ways. We have had over two decades of National Depression Screening Day, we have Mental Illness Awareness Week, and we have had the Decade of the Brain. There seem to be endless awareness initiatives. I don't think the problem with mental health care is the lack of awareness or screening initiatives. From what you can see posted on this blog so far, it might be interesting and productive to have some media awareness events that look at the issue of media bias against psychiatry and the provision of psychiatric services. I don't think it is possible to destigmatize mental illness, when the providers of mental health care are constantly stigmatized.
What about the issue of screening at either a national level or at the level of a health plan? A fairly recent analysis commented that there have been no clinical trials to show that patients who have been screened have better outcomes than those who are not. Further, that weak treatment effects, false positive screenings, current rates of treatment and poor quality of treatment may contribute to the lack of a positive effect of the screening. The authors also refer to a study that suggests that more consistent treatment to reduce symptoms and reduce relapse would lead to a greater treatment effect than screening. A subsequent guideline by the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care agreed and recommended no depression screening for adults at average or increased risk in primary care setting, based on the lack of evidence that screening is effective. Why in the President's fact sheet are the AMA and APA recommending screening? Why are there people advocating for "measurement based care" and the widespread use of rating scales and screening instruments? Why does the State of Minnesota demand that anyone treating depression in the state send them PHQ-9 scores of all of the patient they treat?
The answer to that is the same reason we have political events that add no resources to the problem and make it seem like something is happening. Screening everywhere makes it seem like somebody is concerned about assessing and treating your depression. It makes it seem like we are destigmatizing mental illness and making diagnosis and treatment widely available. The Canadian papers noted above suggest otherwise. Nothing is happening, except people are being put on antidepressants at a faster rate than at any time in history. In a primary care clinic, medications are the first line treatment and psychotherapies - even psychotherapies that are potentially much more cost effective than medications are rarely offered.
My professional organization here - the APA has chosen to advocate for an "integrated care" model that is managed care friendly. A model like this can use checklist screening and essentially have consulting psychiatrists suggesting medication changes on patients who do not respond to the first medication. I obviously do not agree with that position. Only a grassroots change here will make a difference.
If you are concerned that you might have significant depression, you can't depend on your health plan or the government when they are both advocating for a screening procedure that has no demonstrated positive effect. If somebody hands you a screening form for depression or anxiety or sleep or any other mental health symptom, tell them that you want to be interviewed and diagnosed by an expert. Tell them that you want the same approach used if you come to a clinic with a heart problem. Nobody is going to hand you a screening form that you can complete in 2 minutes. You are going to see a doctor. Tell them that you want that expert to discuss the differential diagnoses, the likely diagnoses and the medical and non-medical approaches to treatment including counseling or psychotherapy.
Do not accept a cosmetic or public relations approach to your mental health and spread that word.
George Dawson, MD. DFAPA
Saturday, June 1, 2013
Experiment 1: The Limnology experiment: For a while in my undergrad career, I considered being a limnologist or fresh water biologist. My undergrad college was one of the first to emphasize the environment and ecology. A lot of the work involved doing population estimates of plankton and aquatic invertebrates. We spent hours classifying and counting thousands of organisms that are unknown to most people. We used various sampling techniques and statistics to determine populations of these organisms and whether they seemed to be influenced by any environmental variables. At one point I had equations from an journal article to calculate the probability that a specific species would be in contact with another one - called the "probability of inter species interaction." This is biological science.
Experiment 2: The PChem experiment: Physical Chemistry was the undergrad chemist's dream course when I was in college. You dreamed that you would be able to pass it. We had a text that was not very accessible, but a professor who was brilliant, very accessible and an excellent lecturer. I liked it a lot after we finished thermodynamics and moved on to other topics. Back in the 1970s we had very primitive computing power. Our lab had an old HP calculator that was as big as a current desktop with less computing power than a modern day scientific calculator. One of our tasks was to estimate electron densities around carbon atoms in aromatic hydrocarbons. In an afternoon in the lab we ran the numbers. This was the science of physical chemistry.
I have intentionally left out all of the details of the experiments because for the purpose of comparison with Brooks thesis they are unnecessary. From his essay we learn that biology and chemistry are real sciences with a "distinctive model of credibility". The examples I have given are from those fields. We learn that psychiatry is a "semi-science" because "the underlying reality they describe is just not as regularized as the underlying reality of say, a solar system". I will stop at that point because Brooks further examples rapidly degenerate. What do we have so far?
Looking at my experiments, #2 clearly has the regularity of a solar system. What could be more regular than the electron density for a specific molecule? It fits Brooks definition of science to a tee. What about experiment #1, the biological experiment? Here we have a number of organisms. Some have nervous systems and the others (eg. phytoplankton) do not. I did a series of calculations to look at the probability of one species encountering another. There were certain assumptions to those calculations about randomness to make the calculation much easier to do. But what if I wanted for a moment to be a "behavioral limnologist" and attempt to predict the behavior of a specific stoneflies in the sample? What if I wanted to determine the 5% of stoneflies that exhibited behavioral characteristics, that differentiated them from the other 95%? Suddenly we have a problem. The source of that problem is a nervous system. The underlying reality of most even slightly complicated nervous systems is that they will never have the regularity of a physical system. They have evolved not to. Regularity in a nervous system locking it into a physically predictable system is not in any way adaptive for any animal that needs to forage and reproduce. It is the kiss of death.
But is gets complicated at additional levels. The human brain is highly evolved to have significant processing power. At another level, there are theoretical concerns about whether it is possible to ever to map behaviors and psychiatric symptoms directly onto some neurobiological system. Unlike my experiment 1 above we are rarely interested in looking at only life or death as the outcome variable. The variables that will allow us to study different populations are going to be much more complex than grossly observed behaviors. There is a complicated nervous system between those behaviors and the environment.
Is psychiatry really not a science because it is complex and attempts to deal with the complicated phenomena associated with the human brain? Should we ever be concerned about 1:1 mappings of psychiatric disorders onto a specific genetic or neurobiological defect? Is it possible that a human nervous system is so complex that it is unrealistic to expect that this might happen?
Unlike Brook's theme nobody is a "Hero of Uncertainty". Uncertainty is the expected condition and one that every psychiatrist should be comfortable with. Psychiatry and the associated neurosciences will never be reduced to the predictable calculation of a physical system and that has nothing to do with one being a more prestigious science. It has to do with evolution and complexity. It has to do with what philosophers call the "demarcation problem" between what is and what is not science. More to come on that in the near future.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA