Friday, April 18, 2014

The Cure For Overprescribing

I  felt compelled to get this down because the continued wheel spinning on this subject is really starting to annoy me.  People are wringing their hands like they either don't know what to do or they angrily invoke some model that suggests a solution but not really.  The two common models invoked are the "medicalization" of society and the other is some sort of conspiracy (Big Pharma, psychiatry) to invent diagnoses and indications for prescribing medications in order for Big Pharma to make more money.  The recipients of all of the overprescribing are seen as hapless victims who never stood a chance in the face of the medicalization-conspiracy juggernaut.  All we have to do is stop the Big Pharma-monolithic psychiatry steamroller.

Some of the "solutions" to this dilemma are equally far fetched.  First of all lets say that any physicians affiliated with Big Pharma in any way need to report all of those connections.  There was recent evidence posted that this was not slowing down physician interest in these jobs - temporary or otherwise.  It is after all a free country and one where you have to make money to survive.  Physician compensation is dropping as the workload goes through the roof.  The reimbursement and hassle in psychiatry is so onerous that psychiatrists are the least likely speciality group to accept insurance.  Many physicians would like nothing better than to work for a pharmaceutical company.  So the lack of slowing down is certainly no surprise to me.  Those who are naive to the way transparency works probably thought that physicians would be too ashamed of their appearance of conflict of interest.  That is after all what we are talking about - an appearance of conflict of interest.  The prototype for transparency is the US Congress whose members blatantly take money from and provide easy access to the same industries that they regulate.  If transparency doesn't slow down Congress, why would it slow down physicians who are often in positions where they are actually being paid for rendering a service to the company and there is no evidence of  quid pro quo.

Another solution is to isolate physicians and trainees from pharmaceutical company representatives and  promotional materials.  Probably some of the weakest research in the history of the world is the research that shows that pharmaceutical promotions and advertising influences physicians to prescribe drugs.  The only weaker research is that Maintenance of Certification measures are worth the time and effort.  Not only that but by now it should be pretty clear that throwing pharmaceutical reps to the curb has not diminished the overprescribing of just about anything.  Practically all of the over prescribed antibiotics right now are generics.  The same thing is true of the overprescribed benzodiazepines and antidepressants.  As far as I can tell most of the overprescribed opioids are the usual hydrocodone/oxycodone and acetaminophen preparations and 30 mg generic oxycodone tablets.  Pharmaceutical company detailing has nothing to do with why all of these drugs are overprescribed.  Every hospital and clinic has a Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee responsible for a formulary and they often have specific strategies to reduce costs associated with the most expensive drugs on that formulary.   I spent over a decade on two different P & T Committees.  I have never seen any member try to push through a drug - past about 20 physicians and PharmDs, based on a piece of pizza or a donut that a pharmaceutical rep gave them.  Even thinking that could happen is absurd.

What about the DSM-5 conspiracy?  What about the bereavement exclusion?  Won't that open up tens of millions of mourners to the hazards of antidepressant medications?  Only if their primary care physician is fairly clueless.  As I have previously posted psychiatrists have studied the problem and the solutions that Paula Clayton found 40 years ago are no different than today than they were then. It certainly is possible that treating rating scale results can increase antidepressant prescribing.  But that is currently considered state-of-the-art measurement based care by managed care organizations and some governments.  That is a clear force that facilitates overprescribing.

What about cognitive errors?  Do physicians really overprescribe because they lack the technical knowledge on how to prescribe?  I really doubt that is the problem.  I would cite the case of overprescribed antibiotics.  During my training and for many years after the Sanford Guide to Antimicrobial Therapy was considered definitive guidance for antibiotic therapy.  As HIV therapy increased in success and complexity an accompanying manual The Sanford Guide to HIV/AIDS Therapy came out.  Every medicine and surgery house officer and many staff counted on the microscopic type on these pages for definitive guidance on prescribing antibiotic and antiviral therapies.  It was just a question of identifying the pathogen, determining if the patient could tolerate the medication, and prescribing the drug as recommended.  So how is it possible that antibiotics are overprescribed?

So what are the real reasons for overprescribing?  The overprescribing literature extends back well over 20 years at this point.  Solutions are not readily found.  That literature generally comes down to particular class of drugs and the progress in that area.  I recently reviewed the REMS strategy to the current opioid problem and why I did not think that would work.  It really comes down to two things and neither of them has to do with a diagnosis or medicalization.  The first is that health care systems are currently set up to offer some type of test or pill as a solution to most problems.  At least when they are not claiming that they are responsible for your cradle-to-grave health and giving you a gym membership discount.  All of that goes out the window when you enter the clinic and have 5 or 10 minutes with a doctor.  In the case of mental health care, many of the conditions that present in primary care are better treated with psychotherapy than with medications, but most primary care physicians are not trained in psychotherapy.  Some are trained in motivational interviewing, but to suggest that will be successful in many of their patients is really an insult to the problems facing them.  Primary care physicians see patients with very difficult refractory problems.  These patients will see a specialist once or twice and then go back to their primary care physician for care with the same difficult problems.  Not overprescribing in many of these situations is really a question of limit setting rather than motivational interviewing.  That is especially true if the prescription is a drug that is addicting or can cause an altered state of consciousness.

The other issue is that systems of care these days, are set to run on the concept of customer satisfaction rather than excellent medical care.  The idea that a customer may not get what he or she wants is anathema to the MBAs that are currently in charge of the system.  The trickle down effect is that the physician who is setting limits on benzodiazepine, sedative hypnotics, stimulants, or opioid prescriptions will not get good customer satisfaction ratings and their compensation and role in the organization may be diminished as a result.  Health care systems that allow patients to rate their doctors on satisfaction ratings without considering that patients might be dissatisfied with reality should be held to task.

The second factor is the physician himself.  How many physicians have thought about all of the unconscious factors that lead to their overprescribing?  My guess is not many.  The problem of overprescribing is viewed as an informational deficit.  It is believed for example that teaching physicians all about chronic pain and the pharmacology of opioids will somehow reduce opioid overprescribing.  I don't see how anyone can come to that conclusion.  All physicians are taught pharmacology and most have experience prescribing opioids.  That approach seems as naive to me as the Joint Commission pain initiative in the year 2000.  Physicians need to determine for themselves why they are uncomfortable not giving a patient a prescription for whatever they are asking for.   I have heard a wide variety of reasons in my career and most of them have nothing to do with the indications for the drug.  The majority had to do with the physician believing that they could do something to alleviate the patient's distress and that wish was independent of what the diagnosis or indication for the drug was at the time.   The new variation on that theme is that physicians are somehow capable of overcoming the effects of a chronically impoverished environment, severe ongoing adversity, and either an inability or a resistance to change by prescribing a drug.  That is basically the same rationale that people use when they are addicted to drugs and alcohol.  They hope to use something to block out reality for a few hours.  Overprescribing will not change that.  The other interesting consideration is that the diagnosis is irrelevant.  It is tacked on afterwards for a prescription that is written for no real medical reason.

There needs to be better standards for determining what constitutes overprescribing and what does not.  I recently corresponded with the lead author of a paper looking at the issue overuse of health care services in the US (see reference 2).  The authors conclude that while there is ample evidence of overuse, the scope of research is limited.  Some of this is due to difficulties with definition and that would apply to the issue of overprescribing psychiatric medications.  The studies that frequently make the headlines have significant methodological problems.  A study I recently posted used two different data sources to conclude that antidepressants were being overprescribed.  The studies need to be more than prescription, survey and administrative data.  Those studies will necessarily be labor intensive and expensive.

In the end, I always come back to the informed consent model.  If the patient is competent to consent in most cases the physician and patient can have detailed conversation about the prescription including the risks and benefits and what it would like to go without it.  These are usually lengthy conversations.  These are tough decisions based on the fact that nobody wants to take medications regularly or see doctors for the purpose of continuing medications.  My own personal experience is consistent with what my patients have told me over the years - some change is desperately needed and that is often how the medication is viewed.  In that context people will often try medications with significant toxicity.  The medicines advertised on TV with death as a stated side effect are cases in point.  But no matter how much information passes, the physician needs to be the ultimate judge of whether the medication is a good idea.

It can never be a decision that is taken lightly.          

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

1: Gordon M, Catchpole K, Baker P. Human factors perspective on the prescribing behavior of recent medical graduates: implications for educators. Adv Med Educ Pract. 2013 Jan 10;4:1-9. doi: 10.2147/AMEP.S40487. Print 2013. PubMed PMID: 23745094

2: Korenstein D, Falk R, Howell EA, Bishop T, Keyhani S. Overuse of health care services in the United States: an understudied problem. Arch Intern Med. 2012 Jan 23;172(2):171-8. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2011.772. Review. PubMed PMID: 22271125

Supplementary 1:  I was going to add a detailed explanation of my bubble diagram to this post but it is too long.  Look for a separate post about the bubbles.

Supplementary 2:  An updated higher resolution bubble diagram is located at this link.


  1. The Onion crystallizes what patient satisfaction research gets wrong:,35718/

    Not far from the truth. Especially when hospital CEOs get paid on Press Ganey ratings.

    1. Thanks for posting that link. The interesting part is that the business side usually knows how to game the rating (scripting, etc). In the competition for patients one of the flawed business ideas is that it is all based on costs. I have seen situations where it depended on the ease of prescription - and word travels fast, but I have also seen websites that specify time with the physician (60 minutes intakes and 30-45 minute follow ups). The problem is that there is no real competition when only one model is funded.

  2. It's all just BF Skinner...reward anyone for doing the wrong thing long enough it eventually becomes the right thing.