Monday, June 18, 2018

They Don't Even Know What They Are Seeing.......

I was walking back from a meeting with a psychiatric colleague the other day.  There was the usual grousing about the practice environment and miscommunication and she made the following observation about why physicians and psychiatrists don't get the information they need.  She pointed out that in many cases the nonphysician  observers: "Don't even know what they are seeing."  If you are counting on people for observational data and that is true - that is a setup up for suboptimal care at the minimum and a catastrophe at the worst.

Take the case of a very basic measurement - blood pressure and pulse.  Anyone taking those measurements should be aware of the guidelines and whether or not the patient has a baseline abnormality, condition that can affect either, or medication effect that leads to changes in the vital signs.  They should also be aware of the limitations of measurement.  All of the automatic blood pressure machines in the world will not be able to assess and treat the patient unless the operators know what the numbers mean.  They also need to know that one of the problems with single operator and strictly machine operated approaches is that arrhythmias are problematic even if the blood pressure is fine.  There have been situations where I had to put together a continuing education course on blood pressure and pulse and the correct assessment of both.  That was a long time before the recent article on common mistakes made by medical students in these measurements.

If measurements that are considered routine and done hundreds of times a day are problematic what about observations that occur on the other end of the spectrum.  A common health care myth today is: "If I have a checklist and check off all of the boxes on that list that will lead me to some kind of diagnosis."   That is probably a minimization of the myth.  In the case of psychiatry, the myth is more: "If I convert a standard psychiatric assessment into a form (or a checklist) - the ultimate product of going through that list will basically be a psychiatric evaluation and diagnosis."  Systems of care who use this approach can deny these myths as much as they want but I see this happening every day. Organized psychiatry and the DSM approach to diagnostic criteria is partially responsible, although the manual does say that it can't be used by anybody.  It doesn't say who specifically should use it and it does not suggest (like Kendler) that it is an indexing approach.

Looking at the graphic at the top of the page illustrates why a form or a checklist does not suffice.  The observer/psychiatrist in the drawing is doing more than asking the subject a series of yes or no questions.  The psychiatrist is looking for patterns in symptoms (medical and psychiatric), what is happening in relationships with the person (including the relationship to the psychiatrist), and the person's conscious state - specifically whether there has been a departure from baseline.  There is often a balance between historical detail, phenomenology, the person's ability to describe what has happened and a plausible scenario based on probability estimates from the psychiatrist's previous experience.  Any psychiatrist who has been trained in many presentations of complex psychiatric illness is more likely to see those patterns than somebody who has not been.

To illustrate some of these concepts I will describe several cases that are all what non-psychiatrists (nonphysicians and other physicians) called hysteria. Hysteria is an old word that dies hard.  The DSM equivalent is histrionic personality disorder.  The generic use of the term suggests a person who is overly emotional, dramatic and attention seeking but there are 8 diagnostic criteria that are unchanged between DSM-IV and DSM-5.  Many clinicians opt for the term Cluster B - a DSM-IV originated term that grouped personality disorders in groups according to some common diagnostic features.  The Cluster B group included individuals that often appear dramatic, emotional, or erratic.  Those personality disorder diagnoses include antisocial, histrionic, narcissistic, and borderline.

The rule-in criteria (significant impact on life circumstances and onset when you expect a personality disorder to occur) and the rule-out criteria (not due to another mental or physical disorder) are predictable for any causal reader of a DSM and could be included on any checklist or form.  How does all of that play out?  Well here are a few examples:

Hysterical patient #1:   A 30 year old woman presents for a therapy intake.  She is mumbling and laughing.  The therapist describes her as "odd and having an odd affect."  She alludes to some suicidal behavior in the past but is smiling and joking about it.  The therapist has the impression that she is manipulative and overly dramatic.  He contacts the clinic psychiatrist and says that she is histrionic but he is concerned about her suicide potential.  The psychiatrist sees her that day and makes a diagnosis of bipolar disorder-mixed type with psychotic features.  The patient is eventually stabilized on lithium and an atypical antipsychotic.

Hysterical patient #2:  A 25 year old woman is being treated on a general medicine ward for dehydration from a respiratory infection.  She suddenly gets tearful and agitated.  Family members visiting have to physically restrain her when when she tries to get out of bed.  She starts to make very loud high pitched vocalizations.  A psychiatrist is called to go in to assess hysteria and possibly sedate the patient.  The psychiatrist sees an agitated young woman who is not able to respond coherently to any examination questions.  Brief neurological examination suggests increased intracranial pressure is the problem and the patient requires immediate transfer to a neurological intensive care unit. 

Hysterical patient #3:  A 58 year old man is referred acutely from a therapist for acute panic attacks and "probable Cluster B" personality traits.  He has recently retired due to osteoarthritis of the knees.  He had no earlier history of panic attacks but the therapist thought that he was overly dramatic at the initial session 2 days earlier when he was unable to relax and breathe normally with behavioral techniques that are usually effective.  The psychiatrist gets a history of the patient needing to abort an exercise stress test two weeks earlier due to the arthritis and having  a prolonged period of immobility at home due to sore knees. During that time he developed acute shortness of breath.  The episodes of anxiety that he described were secondary to shortness of breath and not panic attacks.  The psychiatrist sends the patient to the emergency department where an acute pulmonary embolism is diagnosed and he is admitted to the ICU.     

These are just a few examples restricted to one collection of psychiatric symptoms that illustrates what my colleague was referring to.  The value of psychiatric training goes far beyond what is in the DSM and what checklists and templates can be extracted from it.  I have never really met a psychiatrist who was focused on the DSM probably because it is implicitly evident to us that it is an index more than a diagnostic manual. We are focused on what is not in the DSM and as far as I know that is not well documented in many places.  Those are the patterns associated with clinical practice and that should have been gleaned along the way with medical training.  The DSM doesn't tell you how a pulmonary embolism presents. It is possible that you night have never seen one. But in medical training I can guarantee that it was discussed somewhere along the line in the differential diagnosis of dyspnea.  I can guarantee that one of those attendings discussed the phenomenon of the healthy young adult immobilized by air travel who gets off at their destination and suddenly has an acute pulmonary embolism. All of those features and urgencies should be in a physicians conscious state when they are seeing the whole patient and not some DSM/checklist version of a patient.

This brief post also illustrates the biasing effects of language.  What  does "Cluster B" really mean?  Aren't people who are acutely medically (or psychiatrically) ill dramatic, emotional, or erratic?  Hysteria is an extremely biasing term that over the centuries has been applied selectively to women rather than men.   The examples above illustrate that point.  If you are seeing the world through DSM language and that is your only lens - you are by definition not seeing the whole patient.  The list of possible errors in that landscape is very large.

There are a number of constraints that will get  in the way of a trained psychiatrist trying to see the whole patient.  Inadequate time is one, but time frames vary significantly.  Diagnosing a life threatening medical problem upon seeing a patient may take a matter of minutes and is clearly the most important diagnosis.  Seeing a long series of new patients briefly to prescribe treatment will necessarily mean that certain features in the above diagram will be missed.  So-called measurement based care depending on a large number of checklists to "quantitate" affects or other psychiatric states makes the same mistake.  Collaborative care where a psychiatrist looks at these rating scales and recommends treatments makes the same mistake.

The best assurance that the critical aspects of care will not be missed is to be sitting across the room from someone who has been taught all of the critical aspects of care.  That process is complex and as far as I know has never been adequately described.  A first approximation is whether that person knows what they are seeing and how to respond.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA     


  1. What is both hilarious and hideous simultaneously is how psychiatrists give these exact specific diagnostic impressions from one visit with a patient, these days often in less than one hour and with minimal if no collateral information.

    Frankly, I have to wonder if the DSM-5 borders on incredible malfeasance, if not potential criminal intent.

    And what bothers me these days is how excited people are about telepsychiatry. They really think that seeing a person on a TV screen tens if not hundreds of miles away is going to give an accurate portrayal of who and what they are suffering from?

    We Are doomed colleagues, if we think that we have progressed to such evolutionary heights professionally with the way we conduct ourselves, we might as well be cavemen walking around with sticks and rocks.

    1. The best approach to both collateral care and telepsychiatry is to see the patient in person at least at some point in their evaluation and treatment.

      I left out the important aspect of what I would see as the old community mental health center consultation model. Somebody who is not a psychiatrist makes a diagnosis and refers to the psychiatrist only for the purpose of providing medication for that diagnosis. It was a significant problem in some CMHCs in the past. My concern is that some of it is still occurring by proxy.

      The frequent rationalizations about how these arrangements work well until there is a complication and litigation do not really hold up well. A large percentage of all medical care in this country is suboptimal and that includes misdiagnoses and avoidable negative outcomes. A rationed system of care is sold to the American public and low quality care is not only rarely penalized but in many cases advertised as the best.

      The only possible arguments for quality assessment and treatment is to provide optimal care. It is more of a professional ethical argument than anything. Rationing care doesn't help - and in the long run I doubt it is any more expensive than churning along and seeing psychiatrists or therapists or other physicians who can't help.

  2. Very interesting read. Really loved the examples you mentioned.

    Thank you Doc :)