There was an opinion piece in the New York Times a few days ago entitled "Psychotherapy's Image Problem". The author goes on to suggest that despite empirical evidence of effectiveness and a recent study showing a patient preference for psychotherapy - it appears to be in decline. He jumps to the conclusion that this is due to an image problem, namely that primary care physicians, insurers, and therapists are unaware of the empirical data. That leads to a lack of referrals and for some therapists use of therapies that are not evidence based - further degrading the field. He implicates Big Pharma in promoting the image of medications and that the evidence base for medication has been marketed better. He implicates the American Psychiatric Association in promoting medications and suggests that the guidelines are biased against psychotherapies.
I am surprised how much discussion this post has received as though the contention of the author is accurate. Psychotherapy has no image problem as evidenced by one the references he cites about the fact that most patients prefer it. It wasn't that long ago that the famous psychotherapy journal Consumer Reports surveyed people and concluded that not only were psychotherapy services preferred, they were found as tremendously helpful by the majority of people who used them. That study was not scientifically rigorous but certainly was effective from a public relations standpoint.
The idea that psychiatry is promoting drugs over psychotherapy seems erroneous to me. The APA Guidelines certainly suggest psychotherapy as first line treatments and treatments that are part of selecting a therapeutic approach to the patient's problems. Psychopharmacology is also covered and in many cases there are significant qualifications with the psychopharmacology. Further there are a number of psychiatrists who lecture around the country who are strong advocates for what are primarily psychotherapeutic approaches to significant disorders like borderline personality disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. Psychiatrists have also been leaders in the field of psychotherapy of severe psychiatric disorders and have been actively involved in that field for decades. Even psychopharmacology seminars include decision points for psychotherapy either as an alternate modality to pharmacological approaches or a complementary one. What is omitted from the arguments against psychiatry is that many payers do not reimburse psychiatrists for doing psychotherapy.
The author's action plan to politically promote the idea that psychotherapy is evidence based and deserves more utilization is doomed to fail because the premises of his argument are inaccurate. There is no image problem based on psychiatry - if anything the image is enhanced. There is definitely a lack of knowledge about psychotherapy by primary care physicians and it is likely that is a permanent deficit. Primary care physicians don't have the time, energy, or inclination to learn about psychotherapy. In many cases they have therapists in their clinic and just refer any potential mental health problems to those therapists. In other cases, the health plan that primary care physicians work for has an algorithm that tells them to give the patient a 2 minute depression rating scale and prescribe them an antidepressant or an anxiolytic.
And that is the real problem here. Psychotherapists just like psychiatrists are completely marginalized by managed care and business tactics. If you are a managed care company, why worry about insisting that therapists send you detailed treatment plans and notes every 5 visits for a maximum of 20 visits per year when you can just eliminate them and suggest that you are providing high quality services for depression and anxiety by following rating scale scores and having your primary care physicians prescribe antidepressants?. The primary care physicians don't even have to worry if the diagnosis is accurate anymore. The PHQ-9 score IS the diagnosis. Managed care tactics have decimated psychiatric services and psychotherapy for the last 20 years.
It has nothing to do with the image of psychotherapy. It has to do with big business and their friends in government rolling over professionals and claiming that they know more than those professionals. If you really want evidence based - they can make up a lot of it. Like the equation:
rating scale + antidepressants = quality
If I am right about the real cause of the decreased provision of psychotherapy, the best political strategy is to expose managed care and remember that current politicians and at least one federal agency are strong supporters of managed care.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Brandon A. Guadiano. Psychotherapy's Image Problem. New York Times September 29, 2013.