A few weeks ago the Psychiatric Times posted an article called "How to Fix the Broken Mental Health System: Call For Suggestions." I posted a link to one of my previous blogposts in the comments but decided to write a separate post here. My reasons are several fold. First off, any call for suggestions to me is really an invitation to generate web traffic to a particular site. It is a standard tactic of bloggers. For proof of that just Google the title and you will see hundreds of references in the last 2 years. Second, I can do a better job and have done a better job here. It gives me an opportunity to collect links under common themes. Finally, it creates an opportunity to provide answers in one spot. I may be wrong, but I think that the Psychiatric Times piece will be quickly forgotten. Since hardly anyone reads this blog, that will probably also happen, but at least my thoughts are out there and include statements that you won't see posted by anybody else. Here are my point by point suggestions:
1. Managed care and all that it involves including Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), Pharmaceutical Benefit Managers (PBMs) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) must go. It should be evident to anyone that these organizations have not contributed to cost effectiveness, innovation, quality or efficiency. Instead they are largely responsible for an additional hidden tax on all Americans. I am referring to the typical high deductible health insurance plans that results in thousands of dollars in copays and premiums before any health care has been received and the $250,000 in out of pocket costs that any 65 year old couple can expect to pay in additional health care costs. Contrary to their advertising, managed care organizations disempower patients and their physicians and are the largest obstacle to care in this country. Their disproportionate effect on psychiatric and substance use disorder services has been well documented.
2. Centers of excellence rather than collaborative care is the primary goal. All of the managed care forces and their political backers in the first point above are making the argument that we cannot possibly produce enough psychiatrists to meet the need in this country. They maintain that argument despite the fact that the US currently has about 1/4 the number of psychiatrists per capita as Switzerland, significantly fewer than 18 of 32 OECD countries, and is only 1 of 3 countries where the number of psychiatrists is decreasing. Instead of developing a rational triage system, their solution has been to say that anyone can provide psychiatric services or that a psychiatrist reading screening checklists like the PHQ-9 is some kind of psychiatric care. This is both an absurd characterization of psychiatry and a non-solution to the problem. Psychiatric specialists need to be available to treat the most difficult to treat disorders. They don't need to see everyone taking an antidepressant or everyone with insomnia. They need to see people with difficult to diagnose problems and treatment resistant mood, anxiety, psychotic, neurocognitive, substance use, and psychotic disorders. They need to see this population both for diagnostic clarification and treatment. Centers of excellence need to be developed around these disorders and the associated treatment delivery. There are current models that develop statewide systems of care around centers of excellence that seek to provide the highest quality of care to residents in that state.
3. The administration of systems at the local level needs to be done from a clinical and not a financial point of view. The split systems of care (administrative versus clinical) is one of many sources of poor quality care. It has resulted in some situations as absurd as administrators believing that they can design systems of mental health care without input from clinicians. This is especially problematic in treating patients who have problems with aggression. Psychiatric training needs to include specific instruction on how to clinically administer these systems of care.
4. The psychiatric infrastructure needs to be rebuilt. That includes both community and state hospitals. Very clear criteria need to be established for admission to these facilities since state hospitals in recent times have been the only housing option for people with severe problems. The concept of "treatability" has been inappropriately applied by federal regulators. I worked for years as a Medicare reviewer and reviewed many state hospital records where I was asked whether or not the patient had achieved maximum benefit from hospitalization. That would allow the administrative authority that I was working for at the time to deny any payment to the hospital from that point on. The reality is that the patient was still severely disabled and could not live on their own, with their relatives, or in whatever residential facilities existed in the state. Whether there was continued payment or not, there was no place to send the patient due to the presence of a chronic severe disorder. That is still the problem today. Rationing has resulted in a severely constricted infrastructure that does not match the needs of the patient population. A state hospital system cannot exist in a vacuum. There needs to be an established system of residential facilities apart from those hospitals that can accept people who may never acquire the skills to live in a group home setting or independently.
5. An emphasis on independent living and competitive or supported employment needs to be the priority of any mental health system. The community psychiatry movement introduced an important bias - that people with severe mental illnesses should always live independently rather than in an institution if possible. That is a very important concept but it is time to move beyond that basic bias to a more comprehensive approach. That includes not only the vocational rehabilitation aspects but a renewed emphasis on the cognitive and functional capacity aspects of severe mental illnesses. We now have large detailed studies of cognitive deficits in groups of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and substance use disorders. That knowledge has not been used to implement any innovative approaches to residential living or vocational rehabilitation. Treatment rather than rehabilitative approaches to these deficits need continued emphasis and research. The comprehensive treatment of any person with schizophrenia or a mood disorder should include an assessment of cognitive problems beyond the usual approach of treating symptoms.
6. Increased availability of psychotherapy and case management services. Medicalization has become a popular buzzword by journalists and critics of psychiatry. If you ask any psychiatrist about the likely causes of increased prescribing and attempts to treat all problems with medications the likely response will be that there are no other resources left to treat the problems. Many managed care systems have eliminated psychotherapists from their clinics or restricted access to available services. Family and marital therapy is often not available at all. Many counties have severely restricted the availability of placements for children with severe problems. There are clear population based approaches that have not been implemented on a wide scale basis including computerized psychotherapy, brief cognitive behavioral therapies, mindfulness based therapies, basic behavioral approaches, and non-psychotherapy approaches like exercise. These therapies can not only be applied to a wide variety of problems but also can be part of a rational triage system to reduce the prescription of medications and assure that psychiatrists are seeing only the most severe disorders. This system would also be an asset to primary care physicians and provide them with viable options other than prescribing medications.
7. Reform of the civil commitment process is necessary. Civil commitment for involuntary treatment of mental illness and substance use problems is highly subjective and varies considerably from county to county within the same state. That variance is largely due to variability in resources form county to county and interpretations of the statutes that generally are in line with the level of resources. Civil commitment and associated legal functions such as conservatorship or guardianship can be life saving and life changing interventions. A better infrastructure will give legal authorities more confidence that a viable intervention can be accomplished that will reverse the reasons why the person has entered the legal system. But beyond that it has to be clear that managed care definitions of "dangerousness" and interpretations of "imminent dangerousness" are basically rationalizations to do nothing. There also needs to be an avenue for preventing the incarceration of mentally ill and substance using patients for minor offenses and diverting them to treatment programs in the community. Another area where legal interventions are critically needed is guardianship and conservatorship decisions for mentally ill patients in need of acute medical care. Civil commitment, conservatorship, guardianship, and substitute decision makers all need to be rapid parallel processes done through the same probate court rather than different courts and different jurisdictions. It is more likely that experienced judges and referees will be able to make better decisions.
8. Better public health interventions for violence and aggression are needed. There has been no progress in this area due to the political stalemate on gun control or gun access. That never addresses the state of mind prior to the violent incident. The necessary public health interventions need to come at that level and there needs to be centers where aggressive behavior can be addressed and treated before there are adverse outcomes. Beyond that immediate need there is also very little dissemination of the information that is already known about childhood adversity and adult mental health outcomes. There is so much critical information out there about the adverse impact of certain social experiences in childhood that are not public knowledge and that should be widely available.
9. Pharmacovigilance and pharmacosurveillance services need to be developed in the same way that access to controlled substances prescriptions have been developed in many states. We have been hearing about "Big Data". Managed care systems have vast amounts of data that they consider to be proprietary that is analyzed from a business rather than clinical perspective. Any clinician prescribing medications should get a monthly report on their prescribing patterns relative to all physicians and fellow specialists and subspecialists. Statistical models of conservative prescribing and polypharmacy need to be developed. Prescribing patterns associated with the highest complication rates need to be identified. Feedback needs to occur at the level of the individual physician and the reports need an adequate amount of detail. Literature based on data mining large PBM data bases is not useful to individual physicians. With current pharmacy databases there is no reason why this system can not be developed nationwide.
10. Better neuroscience training for psychiatrists and psychiatric trainees. We are past the point where a focus on pharmacology can inform a psychiatrist about how a prescription might affect brain functioning. A detailed knowledge of signaling systems including many systems outside of the nervous system and how they affect plasticity is a requirement for the future. A detailed knowledge of these systems is necessary to understand brain functioning and normal and abnormal conscious states. There needs to be an emphasis on teaching neuroscience in psychiatric departments and correlating neuroscience with currently observed clinical phenomenon at a practical and theoretical level.
11. Medical detoxification from substances needs to be widely available. A lot of people forget that substance use disorders are in the DSM and there is a psychiatric subspecialty in Addiction. Even though we have more addiction specialists than ever, the quality of acute detoxification is worse than ever largely because it is another rationed service. People with significant withdrawal states are often sent home with a bottle of benzodiazepines or sent to a "social" detox setting with no medical supervision. There are specific goals for detoxification from addictive drugs including the prevention of withdrawal seizures, the prevention of delirious states, the prevention of psychotic states, and the prevention of suicide during acute withdrawal. It is a common expectation of the current system to expect a patient or their family to be managing withdrawal at home. The secondary expectation of detox is to assist the patient with transitioning to a safe setting where they can stop using the drug they were just detoxified from. My estimate from talking with primary care physicians is that only about 20% of the emergency departments and primary care physicians in any locale can refer people to functional detox units. The non-medical powers that be in the health care system decided long ago that detox was an "outpatient procedure." In most cases the translates to sending a person home and hoping they will make it to an outpatient appointment or an AA meeting.
12. The gross mismanagement of physicians has been a pathway to physician burnout, mass dissatisfaction, and a dumbed down assembly line approach to the practice of medicine and psychiatry. Physicians don’t need to be told how many people to see in a day, what to document, or how to treat people. The current collaborative care approach can be seen as being due (in part) to a mind numbing productivity approach that was invented by the federal government and the business world in the first place. When I was trained as a physician, our teams knew what the resources were, knew what our tasks for the day were, and we could make a local resource allocation on that basis. It was an extremely efficient way to practice medicine. At some point, administrators developed “productivity” standards where physicians were expected to apply a totally subjective billing and coding scheme to a patient interaction and do that repetitively all day long. There were rarely two interactions that were alike, but for the past 20 years physicians have pretended that they were and that this productivity concept had some real meaning. Administrators could simply increase “productivity standards” to make it seem like more and more work was being done. In some clinics this process reached an absurd level – 40 or 50 patients a day. People with complex problems were being seen for minutes and physicians were going along with it because their salary depended on it. Productivity is another managed care concept that needs to go.
That is my top twelve list for fixing the broken mental health system. They are obvious problems supported by my clinical experience. They are consistent with the frequent problems I have had advocating for the resources I needed to treat patients with severe mental illness. The government and business partnerships in health care have been obstacles to care. As long as these partners continue to ration health care and siphon off large profits while rationing care and resources to the patients who are paying for them nothing will change. This pattern has been most noticeable in psychiatric services. Contrary to a lot of rhetoric, the problem with the mental health system is not the pharmaceutical companies behaving like other businesses. It is not the DSM. It can't be organized psychiatry because organized psychiatry is politically weak and ineffective. It is not physician conflicts of interest because they are plentiful and the more important ones on the business side are never discussed.
This so-called system was brought to you by the government and the health care companies that lobby all politicians. The idea that a system of medical care run by business people and politicians who know nothing about medicine or psychiatry is somehow a good idea, is an ongoing American pipe dream.
It is time for the country to snap out of it.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Supplementary 1: The photo credits here go to Ruzica Vuskovic, MD.
Supplementary 2: I will be adding in links to previous posts at some point but ran out of time tonight.
Supplementary 3: I added on Monday 11/17/2014.