Saturday, February 21, 2015

What Can The APA Learn From UpToDate?

By way of introduction UpToDate is a highly successful online internal medicine text.  It has associated features such as handouts for patients on medications, procedures, and medical conditions.  It also has an online drug interaction feature that allows a limited set of preferences on the part of the physician.  CME credits are available for reading online.  The text covers a broad range of diseases and conditions.  I have asked them for more specific data on the extent of their coverage and total number of pages, but they refused to give it to me citing that it was proprietary information.  I noticed that they currently say that they have 77,000 pages updated by 5100 physicians.

I have been a subscriber to this service for a number of years and the subscription rate is currently about $500/year.  To illustrate how important that number is I need to compare UpToDate to what it replaced.  Ever since graduation from medical school I purchased a new internal medicine textbook about every 4 - 5 years.  I was also a 20+ year subscriber the the Medical Clinics of North America.  I considered it all a part of keeping up on general medicine while practicing psychiatry.  The cost of a typical medicine text like the last one I purchased Textbook of Internal Medicine (William N. Kelley, MD, ed) was somewhere in the $200+ range.  Searching Amazon it looks like my text is out of print by the two comprehensive texts are available for $224 (Harrison's) and $151 (Goldman-Cecil).  Doing the math shows that for $200 you can get a serviceable text that might last you for 5 years (it goes without saying that you always have to do additional reading) and at the end of the day - you still have text in your hand and a valuable reference.  That same 5 year period as a subscriber to UpToDate will provide you with online access of updated data and at the end of that time unless you renew - it is all gone.  Granted it is handy to have this available online if you are working in a hospital setting on different units and the CME feature is very nice - but the cost is about $2500 or twelve and a half times as much as a text every 5 years.

The premium cost in UpToDate relative to a medicine text probably has many things driving it.  The advent of the hospitalist in combination with the electronic health record are probably two of the most significant factors.  If you have internists working 10 hour days 7 days on and 7 days off across large hospitals suddenly there is not time to go to libraries and do research.  All of the information needs to be available as they are essentially word processing documents in the EHR at computer terminals.  In case you haven't tried it, it is also much easier to electronically search a textbook than to heft its considerable weight and keeping flipping flimsy pages back and forth from the index.  Many large groups now provide UpToDate online to their hospitalists and medical specialists in order to keep them working right at those word processing terminals.  These same hospitalists consulting on my inpatient psychiatric unit introduced me to UpToDate when it first came out.

How does all of this this apply to the currently dated and I am guessing infrequently used American Psychiatric Association (APA) Practice Guidelines?  Just looking at the dates of these guidelines shows that applying my approach to internal medicine by purchasing a new text every 4 or 5 years, would have left me more up to date with a psychiatry text than the current APA Practice Guidelines.  What about content in UpToDate?  There are 13 chapters on the major psychiatric disorders that psychiatrists treat.  There are several subheadings under the major headings.  For example, under the heading Anxiety Disorders there are chapters on acute procedure anxiety, acute stress disorder, agoraphobia, combat operational stress,  comorbid anxiety and depression, co-occurring substance use disorder and anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.  There are separate chapters on the pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy of these disorders including fairly esoteric approaches to treatment like deep brain stimulation for obsessive-compulsive disorder.   The sections are all detailed and frequently updated.  Not only that but the recommendations section is essentially written as treatment guidelines.  As an example from that section (1):

"We recommend that patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) be treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medication, or both (Grade 1A)."

Their definition of  Grade 1A Recommendation is:

"A Grade 1A recommendation is a strong recommendation, and applies to most patients in most circumstances without reservation. Clinicians should follow a strong recommendation unless a clear and compelling rationale for an alternative approach is present."

This is the general outline of the psychiatric disorders section in UpToDate.  From the sections I have read their literature review and section updates are all within the last 1-2 months and some of the sections are written by top experts in the field.  The detail is well above what an internist or family physician would need but I would not say it is less than what most psychiatrists need.  It gives practical advice on what is known about the treatment of psychiatric disorders and it is condensed down to about 4 - 12 bullet points at the end of each section.  Solid recommendations are made on management where possible and the recommendation is also graded as to whether or not there is good research to back it up.

What is the importance of these developments for psychiatrists, organized psychiatry, and medicine in general?  I think there are a number of important points.  First, psychiatry is represented in a text that is read by internists and family physicians to a greater extent and in more detail than ever in the past.  This is good for several reasons.  It provides some guidance to primary care physicians in considering the treatment of patients with complicated psychiatric problems at time when there may be fewer psychiatrists covering their patients.  It provides them with technical details that are needed to provide care.  It makes it easier for them to assume the care of patients who have be correctly diagnosed but can no longer be followed by a psychiatrist.  Overall it is good for the idea that psychiatry is a mainstream speciality in the field of medicine.  Second, it brings up the critical question of why the APA has a web page with the APA Practice Guidelines listed at all?  Most are hopelessly out of date.  They have little public visibility.  There have been some opinions that the time for practice guidelines by professional organizations are a thing of the past.  After all, managed care organizations and governments write the guidelines now don't they?  A secondary question is what is the purpose of a professional organization?  In my most read post on this blog, I suggest that it is to propose and disperse state-of-the-art treatments to its membership ("There is a responsibility to establish professional standards for patients referred to psychiatrists for the assessment and treatment....").  Certainly there was a recent opportunity.  An expensive effort bringing together top experts in all fields from around the world was done to compile the DSM-5.  The public was clearly confused about this project when the press and several critics equated the DSM-5 to treatment rather than diagnosis and misread the DSM-5 as being something more than it really is - a guidebook to the International Classification of Diseases.  I have seen experts from that collaboration speak at two conferences now and they happen to also be experts in the treatments of these conditions.  Would it have been wise to update the treatment guidelines in the manner of UpToDate rather than leaving the effort at the level of the DSM-5?  I think that it probably would have.

I brought this issue up recently and was told by people at decision making levels in the APA that they are rethinking the Practice Guidelines from a cost effectiveness standpoint.  My thinking on this is very clear.  If the APA does not want to represent the membership as a union dedicated to advancing the rights and interests of the members from that perspective then it really needs to present itself as a professional organization.  APA members certainly don't enjoy the benefits typically seen when businesses or unions lobby Congress.  If anything psychiatry and medicine has been in an unchecked downward spiral of overregulation and exploitation from businesses for about 30 years now.  The argument is typically made that we are a professional organization and focus on professional education and accountability.  Practice guidelines demonstrate that you have the expertise and wisdom to make that claim.  The APA can no longer say that.  There are more succinct treatment recommendations written by experts and more frequently updated in an online text that targets nonpsychiatrists.

I will be the first to suggest that  this is bad for the profession for a number of reasons and further evidence that the APA is doing very little to advance the profession and the plight of its members.  The current guidelines should be removed (at least the dated ones) and the organization needs to think about a streamlined process to construct new ones or get out of the practice guideline field.  

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA    


1:  Simpson HB, Stein MB, Hermann R.  Pharmacotherapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder.  In: UpToDate, Post TW (Ed), UpToDate, Waltham, MA. (Accessed on February 21, 2015.)


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