Thursday, May 16, 2024

Is Modern Psychiatry Too Intellectually Restrictive?




The inspiration for this post comes from my reading the history of psychiatry. That was not a particular interest of mine until I began researching threads of knowledge going back into time. Then I started to look at how American psychiatry evolved and the fact that it did not really exist at the same time psychiatry existed in Europe.  This is historically confusing in the US, where certain movements try to connect psychiatry to historical events where there are no connections.  The development of psychiatry in Europe is a complicated and interesting story.  The most striking feature is that those early psychiatrists were trained in neuroanatomy, neuropathology, neurology, and psychiatry.  Freud was a Privadozent in neuropathology.  Adolph Meyer emigrated to the US as a neuropathologist and eventually became the chairman of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins eventually influencing a significant number of American psychiatrists. 

In reading about these early psychiatrists, some authors will refer to them as neurologists even though the person in question identified as a psychiatrist (examples include Otto Binswanger ((1852–1929) and Wilhelm Griesinger (1817-1868)).  Others like von Economo (1) were designated psychiatrists and neurologists.  After graduating from medical school in 1901 von Economo spent a year working in an internal medicine clinic and over the next four years worked at various clinics in Europe with Marie, Kraepelin, Alzheimer, and Oppenheim learning psychiatry, neurology, and hypnosis. He returned to the University of Vienna in 1906 and was appointed Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry in 1921. This was an observation from his book Encephalitis Lethargica (2):

"Towards the end of 1916 the wards of the Vienna Psychiatric Clinic contained quite a number of patients with a strange variety of symptoms - cases which had apparently only one feature in common - a difficulty to fit into any known diagnostic scheme.  They had been admitted under the most varied descriptions, such as meningitis, acute disseminated sclerosis, amentia, delirium &c.  The patients all showed a slight influenza-like prodromal condition with trifling pharyngeal symptoms, a slight rise in temperature, soon followed by a variety of nervous symptoms, though generally one sign or another pointed to the midbrain as a source...."

From there von Economo goes on to describe encephalitis lethargica in great detail.  He was subsequently nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine four times for this work.  He also worked on neuroanatomy - where he made additional discoveries. His education and career contrasts well with current psychiatric education in the US where it seems that too little content is being spread over too many years - even more if you want to be certified in both neurology and psychiatry. He apparently got what he needed in 4 years while living in 4 different European cities.  Places like the Vienna Psychiatric Clinic also do not exist today - where the only solid criteria for admission is dangerousness and all admissions need to be medically cleared  by somebody (physician or extender) that may be oblivious to neurological and psychiatric presentations of acute illness. 

More to the point – they were probably neuropsychiatrists and that has relevance for the system of board certification in the US.  Prior to board certification most psychiatrists in the US were neuropsychiatrists and practiced neurology and psychiatry. That all changed in 1934 when the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) – made the rule that all psychiatrists practicing both specialties must pass both board certification exams.

Reading the paper (3) about Bleuler was interesting because it is an easy read that emphasizes several concepts in psychiatry that just repeat if you don’t understand them.  First is the age-old debate about categorical versus dimensional diagnoses.  The author’s conclude that Bleuler supported dimensional diagnoses but it seems they are describing his process as one of detailed formulation rather than dimensions. This was rooted in his method of clinical psychiatry. I suppose a four dimension scale could be envisioned based on Bleuler’s “4 As” (see below) – but my interpretation is that he was looking for detailed medical, family, social, and developmental history.  He is described as a clinician who had close contact with patients rather than an experimentalist – that is the data he was interested in.

Second, the richness of the psychiatric landscape during Bleuler’s time cannot be denied. The psychiatrists were writing and researching across the spectrum of neurology, neuroscience, psychology, and theoretical psychiatry. There was no shortage of ideas about describing clinical phenomena or possible treatments.  Bleuler had contact with many prominent psychiatrists of his time and his opinions about some of their theories was known.

Third,  Bleuler’s approach could be considered pluralistic to use today’s jargon.  He was  clearly engaged in doing the subjective realm and individualized evaluations.  He thought that schizophrenia could be an exaggerated neurosis from psychological conflicts.  He believed that the disease process had a biological basis but he was focused on a psychological treatment.  He also did not see schizophrenia as having a uniformly deteriorating course. His thoughts about the biology of the disorder were undoubtedly affected by the facts that he was not an experimentalist, there were no useful biological treatments and despite many autopsy studies there were no good gross anatomical or histological correlates of schizophrenia.



The patterns and themes noted in this paper run throughout the history of psychiatry.  Since psychiatry became the default profession for treating severe mental illnesses, there have been hypotheses about the nature of the illnesses, how to medically evaluate them, and how to treat them. As illustrated on this blog, there are often critics outside of the field who seem to ask these questions as if no psychiatrist has ever thought about them in the past.

In many ways the intellectual landscape of turn of the century psychiatry was richer than it is today. We currently have a refined product in terms of classification, but many of the questions relevant of psychopathology and neuroscience remain open. The basic problem of biological complexity is not easily answered and it is only recently being approached.  Biological and psychotherapy options appear to have been maxed out by heterogeneity problem.  From a historical perspective, what is most alarming to me is that there has not been a synthesis of these questions and approaches to bring current psychiatrists and trainees up to speed.  Much of the time seems to be spent on the same research techniques and critiquing endless clinical trials.

At a global level, the intellectual landscape of the field seems constricted.  The board certification process has certainly been part of that as well as the general goals of standardization.  There has been an enormous effort on standardizing nomenclature at the cost of de-emphasizing psychopathology. Clinical practice has been standardized largely based on settings and administrative codes. Documentation has been standardized by the same codes and electronic health records.  Much of the documentation is essentially worthless in describing patient progress or the unique features of the individual and is essentially there to satisfy business administrators.  The training of new psychiatrists is standardized in some areas - but there are very few specifics in terms of what trainees need to see in order to be good psychiatrists.  For example, there is an apparent assumption that if you spend a month or two in a neurology clinic - you will have adequate exposure to accurately assess neurological problems presenting as psychiatric problems and make the correct triage or treatment decisions.   

 I don’t think expanding the intellectual landscape for residency programs would take much.  It will take a bit of integration.  The sanctioning bodies of medical education have made the task harder than it should be by not specifying all of the important educational topics and letting the programs each sort it out on their own.  That means residents will see certain concepts inconsistently if at all, presentations and seminars will depend on the availability, interest, and quality of the teaching staff, and even then, topics are likely to be followed too rigidly.

The first question is what exactly should that landscape be?  Residency requirements by the ACGME are surprisingly vague.  They are focused primarily on clinical experiences based on clinical populations and settings, availability of supervision, and overriding goals of excellence, motivation, and interest on the part of the teaching faculty. There are some broad technical markers of specific experiences by psychiatric subspeciality or skill (eg. psychotherapy, managing drug interactions, etc).  I know that the residency directors meet frequently and it would not surprise me to find out that there are more detailed approaches shared among them – but if that occurs, I do not know where to access it.

My suggested approach at integration would be teaching the historical controversies and concepts that are still relevant all at once.  There are several integrative papers in the literature already.  There are also still some big concepts that need formulation and discussion like the biological diversity and heterogeneity issues that run throughout all of medicine. A potential academic model for this approach already exists and I suggest it is in the Voet, Voet, and Pratt - Fundamentals of Biochemistry - 6th edition.  One of the issues that frequently arises during discussions of this nature is how much philosophy needs to be included. My reading of the literature suggests that if anything there has been an excess of philosophy being applied to psychiatry.  At times psychiatry is made to seem like psychiatrists themselves have never considered the obvious questions. Teaching residents about psychiatry and the way that psychiatrists have attempted to formulate and solve problems seems like as good a place to start as any to me.

It can start with the names in this paper.    

Pattern matching also needs to be reemphasized. The reason a psychiatrist can diagnose bipolar disorder is that they have seen many cases and many variations - not because they have read the DSM.  The same is true for all of the mimics of bipolar disorder including neurological conditions. I am concerned about the level of exposure that residents have to acute neurological problems, especially now that many inpatient neurology services have been replaced by hospitalists with neurology consultants. There is a long list of acute neurological presentations that every psychiatrist must see and diagnose in training and distance from our neurology colleagues makes that more difficult. 

 

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

 

References:

1:  Kaya Y, Uysal H, Akkoyunlu G, Sarikcioglu L. Constantin von Economo (1876-1931) and his legacy to neuroscience. Childs Nerv Syst. 2016 Feb;32(2):217-20. doi: 10.1007/s00381-015-2647-0. Epub 2015 Feb 24. PMID: 25707481.

2:  von Economo C.  Encephalitis Lethargica.  Oxford University Press, London. 1929. page B.

3:  Heckers S. Bleuler and the neurobiology of schizophrenia. Schizophr Bull. 2011 Nov;37(6):1131-5. doi: 10.1093/schbul/sbr108. Epub 2011 Aug 26. PMID: 21873614; PMCID: PMC3196934.

Open Access <-you can read this paper


Supplementary:

I just accessed and read the following paper this morning several days after the above post.  It is an open access paper that can be read and downloaded.  It basically makes the same argument that my post makes - an integrated approach to psychiatry and neurology (and neuroscience) is preferable.  It is written from the neurology perspective and that may be why the suggested remedies fall short.  Integration between the specialties is really not possible as long as one (psychiatry) is disproportionally rationed and is under an administrative burden that divorces it from clinical reality. 


Perez DL, Keshavan MS, Scharf JM, Boes AD, Price BH. Bridging the Great Divide: What Can Neurology Learn From Psychiatry? J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2018 Fall;30(4):271-278. doi: 10.1176/appi.neuropsych.17100200. Epub 2018 Jun 25. PMID: 29939105; PMCID: PMC6309772.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

What Does the DEA Drug Trafficking Report Really Mean?



 

The DEA just published a significant report on the drug threat in the United States. I read the entire document and will review a few of the high spots here highlighting why it is not too relevant for most parts of the country.  I am on record in several places on this blog making similar comments. My basic argument has not changed significantly and that is that the demand for illegal and often fatal drugs is driven by the culture in the US and I would not expect law enforcement to make much of a difference. The case in point is Prohibition and the ban on alcohol.  Of course it was not a real ban.  Criminals still bootlegged alcohol into the country, religious groups found a way to circumvent the law, and there are always people producing illegal alcohol as a significant percentage of alcohol consumed every year.

These facts are most often distorted into the argument that Prohibition or any War on Drugs is doomed from the outset. That argument is most frequently used to implicitly suggest that any attempt to legally restrict intoxicants will be righteously overcome by people with a natural right to pursue intoxication.  That is extrapolated to practically any scenario short of negligent homicide due to intoxication or drug dealing. But even the drug dealing scenarios are being rapidly modified to allow possession of certain amount of cannabis or in some cases legitimizing drug dealing as a useful occupation. The direct and indirect costs of drug use to both individuals and society are typically ignored by anyone without a medical or public health interest. Intoxication is a cultural right, a right of passage, and every effort of being made to expand the availability of intoxicants to everyone in the US.

The DEA (1) states their role is to expand awareness, preserves lives, and provide intelligence to law enforcement that might be useful for resource allocation and prioritization.   Synthetic opioids and stimulants are described as the biggest threats.  Both can be easily mass-produced by the cartels in Mexico.  Fentanyl alone has accounted for a massive increase in mortality due to its potency and low therapeutic index – accounting for 74,225 deaths in 2022.  China is implicated as the main source of precursor drugs to produce fentanyl.

The report clearly states that two Mexican cartels are responsible for the drug flow into the US and the most significant drug crisis in the history of the US.  Further – the cartels have penetrated most states in the US to varying degrees.  The Internet has facilitated drug sales in the US and made these transactions more difficult to track.  The cartels are also producing methamphetamine leading to an increase in stimulant associated deaths.  There is also a China connection.  Chinese criminal operations supply precursors for the synthesis of opioids and methamphetamine as well as money laundering operations to make the money from illegal drugs sales useable. 

One of the strategies these criminal enterprises are using is adding additional intoxicants to the drug that users are purchasing.  This has the effect enhancing the intoxicating effects but with a much higher risk of overdose and death – especially if the user is naïve to that drug or the seller is ignorant about the potency of the additional intoxicant.  I became aware of this phenomenon about a decade ago when I was being told that users witnessed fentanyl being pressed into alprazolam tablets and sold as alprazolam.  A secondary phenomenon was that many people were not averse to fentanyl but actively sought it out to enhance the period of intoxication.  The DEA report describes the following combinations:  

Fentanyl plus:

Heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, xylazine,

Counterfeit prescription drugs: (oxycodone (M30, Percocet); hydrocodone (Vicodin); or alprazolam (Xanax)

 

The DEA report addresses many of the logistics of the substance use problem and it does raise awareness – especially of the dangers of getting adulterated drugs and the severe side effects including death. It also highlights drug counterfeiting and it gives a great example of an Adderall tablet counterfeited from methamphetamine (see below).  That is especially problematic during a time of Adderall shortages from legitimate suppliers.

 


The unaddressed problem is American culture.  I don’t want to suggest that large groups of sociopaths intent on making money no matter how many people they kill don’t bear some responsibility. I also don’t want to suggest that reducing the availability of these drugs by any means is not a good idea.  But one of the takeaways from reading this report is that law enforcement is clearly not winning and it is a huge burden on them in both the US and Mexico.  Former President of Mexico Vincente Fox characterized the problem well as “America’s insatiable appetite for drugs.”  Right now, it is a multigenerational chronic problem. People can get effective treatment and recover but too many die and too many become chronic users. There needs to be an effective strategy for primary prevention or preventing use in the first place. Suggestions along these lines typically end up caricatured as the 1980s “just say no” public service ads or the "failed war on drugs", but this strategy was clearly effective in reducing cigarette consumption and decreasing the population of smokers. It has had the expected effects of decreasing smoking related mortality in both the general population and in smokers who quit.  The same population-wide benefits would be expected from any public health measure that effectively reduced the use of alcohol, stimulants, opioids, cannabis, or any other intoxicants.  What are the cultural factors that keep this drug epidemic going?  Here are a few:

1:  Cultural acceptance of substance use as a rite of passage:  The stories are endless. Fraternity and sorority hazing involving excessive alcohol use.  High school graduation parties associated with multiple driving while intoxicated deaths. Incarceration from assaults and homicides from barroom fights. Consumption of alcohol and other intoxicants in high school well before the legal age for consumption has been reached. Much of this has to do with immaturity.  The Decade of the Brain did inform us that just on a biological basis human brains do not mature until the mid 20s and in the case of men possibly even later. Immersing an immature brain in intoxicants is generally not a recipe for success and may be a developmental risk for substance use disorders and mental illnesses.

2:  Consumerism and the selling of intoxicants:  This is a widespread phenomenon in the US.  Alcohol commercials typically suggest success, sexual attractiveness, popularity, sophistication, and glamour.  Identification with Hollywood A-listers is a plus and many of them are marketing their own brands to capitalize on that fact. The expensive packaging is often more significant than any difference in taste or quality. The only downsides are a very brief allusion to the Surgeon General’s warning about alcohol use in pregnancy or a disclaimer to “use responsibly.”  Not much about alcohol poisoning, cancer, cirrhosis, pancreatitis, cardiac problems, dementia risk, or substance induced psychiatric disorders. For a long time alcohol was hyped as a heart health beverage.

3:  Your right to intoxicants:  The subculture of users has a mixed agenda in promoting this idea.  There are a few people who believe that their lives are better by using drugs or alcohol, that they are using these substances in a controlled manner and “not hurting anybody.” And therefore, anyone should have the right to use them under these conditions.  On the face of it – few people would argue that point – even though it does assume that self-report about use and its consequences are always accurate.  A subgroup is promoting widespread intoxicant use as a business.  Many in this group see it as a get rich quick scheme. Many see it as a diversity equity inclusion (DEI) issue.  That is – minority groups sustained harm from excessive legal penalties against cannabis and other drug possession and therefore they should be given advantages in setting up businesses that profit from legalization.  Many want to extend cannabis law changes to include all drugs and legalize access to everything. The DEA report stands in contrast to mass legalization because it estimates how much the country would be awash in fentanyl if it was legal. It also ignores why substances were controlled in the first place and what happened when physicians started to prescribe more opioids both as "dope doctors" in the early 20th century maintaining people in addiction and in the late 1990s leading to the beginning of the current opioid epidemic.

4:  Cannabis misinformation:  There has not been much reflection of the medical cannabis period of the early 21st century.  Cannabis was touted as a miracle drug whose benefit was being neglected due to archaic drug laws and the lack of modern research. Nothing was said about cannabis being around for over 700 years and having no clear cut indications for use or the fact that earlier cannabis compounds fell into disuse with modern therapeutics. That led to a patchwork of state-level medical cannabis laws, making each of those states a Mini-FDA with their own indications for use and in some cases limited forms of cannabis that could be dispensed for those indications.  Just as it became apparent that cannabis really was not much good for medical applications or even pain – the real motivation for the medical cannabis Trojan Horse became apparent.  That was of course recreational use. The Biden administration is currently considering rescheduling cannabis from a Schedule I to a Schedule III substance. That takes it off the experimental/no medical application category but still suggests that it will be prescribed and supervised by a physician.

5:  Widespread promotion of hallucinogens and psychedelics as miracle drugs: Building on the success of promoting cannabis as a medicine – we are now seeing frequent hype about the wonderful effects of psychedelics along with practically no discussion of the side effects. MDMA and LSD are being seen as wonder drugs that successfully treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance use disorders. The cannabis promoters successfully promoted cannabis as a nearly completely benign substance and the hallucinogen/psychedelic promoters have used the same tactic.  I only recently read an account where the following side effects during a clinical trial of an LSD based drug were listed: illusion, nausea, euphoric mood, headache, visual hallucination, mydriasis, altered state of consciousness, anxiety, blood pressure increase, and abnormal thinking (all in significant numbers). In my clinical experience I have treated people with permanent side effects from this drug class after a single dose.

6:  Better living through chemistry:  There is a current wave of euphoria in the popular culture about GLP-1 agonists like Ozempic and Monjauro. It has been accompanied by FDA approved indications but also a very public reexamination of the usual prescriptions of diet and exercise for weight loss. The pendulum seems to have swung to the point that all excessive weight is a disease state that can only be approached with a powerful drug that has potentially powerful side effects.  From a cultural perspective this class of drugs reinforces the American dream that we can tune our bodies like we tune our cars and if we have the right drugs – we can have whatever kind of body or mind that we want. More longstanding evidence of this attitude is evident from anabolic androgenic steroid use and stimulant use for - both for performance enhancement.  All three are grand illusions. Hominid biology has evolved to incredible complexity over the past 2 millions years.  Any group of people may look alike but there are hidden differences in physiology and pharmacological response. One person’s medication is another person’s poison. As a result there are very few miracle drugs and some intoxicants have been around for centuries making it even less likely.

7:  Sobriety as a subculture:  In most societies certain religions and life philosophies are the most likely promoters of sobriety.   Most sobriety in the US is not thought about too much.  There are about 60% of people who never drink. There is a group of people in active recovery who had a problem with intoxicants and were successful in discontinuing them.  There is a small movement right now of young people who are not in recovery promoting sobriety.  The cultural resistance against substance use in the US seems trivial compared with the promotions.

8:  Treatment is secondary prevention: A standard political approach to the drug epidemic these days is to suggest that more availability of treatment centers and providers is a needed approach.  This is correct in so far as treatment for these conditions has always been deficient. Treatment has had a role in terminating localized drug epidemics in both Chicago and Washington DC.  There is a question about how well it will work now that just about every county in the US is awash with opioids and methamphetamine.   A logical approach may be to prevent new users from entering this cycle – in other words decreasing the incidence of the problem. Unfortunately there are fewer resources to address this problem and a lot of pessimism about that approach.  

9: Intoxicant use is a choice: Even though there is obvious evidence out there that a significant percentage of the population develops uncontrolled use of drugs and/or alcohol denial and rationalizations about this continues to persist. It has to in order to maintain the myth that people with substance abuse disorders really have a moral defect rather than a biological propensity.  In other words – repeatedly telling them to stop and blaming them for the problem is all that is required. That approach ignores the real problem that if you are biologically disposed – all it takes is access to substances to keep that process going. The moral approach also allows for a legalization position by simply stating that the people who cannot control their use are irresponsible.  

10:  Deaths of despair: This concept was popularized by Dean and Case (2) to explain increased mortality due to intentional injury and drug overdoses caused by hopelessness due to economic problems and the associated stress. Deaths due to alcohol and drug use were seen because of economic stress rather than a consequence of excessive use for other reasons including the cultural factors that have been specified. The concept minimizes the fact that severe alcohol and drug problems exist in populations that have no economic stress and that most of the people with severe economic stress do not have drug and alcohol problems. It also minimizes the fact that we are still in the midst of a multi-decade drug epidemic and there is no end in sight.  

11:  Legalizing drugs will put the cartels out of business:  This has always been an extremely naïve argument.  Alcohol and tobacco sales are legal and taxed but that does not prevent their illegal sales.  Prescribing opioids, stimulants, and benzodiazepines does not prevent their illegal sales.  The DEA report highlights continued involvement by organized crime in cannabis production and sales - even after it has been legalized. Illegal production has led to violent crime and adverse environmental impact.  These same organizations are currently producing counterfeit name brand pharmaceuticals.  There is no reason to expect that legalizing very high risk drugs will stop criminals from producing or selling them.

12:  No education about who may be at higher risk:  To an addiction psychiatrist seeing people after acute events the risks are obvious.  People who use intoxicants and get extremely euphoric or aggressive to the point that it impairs their judgment are clearly at high risk and should consider not using them at all. Unfortunately that self examination often does not happen until there has been a life changing event.  People with a strong family history of substance related problems are another high risk group.  Some individuals come to the conclusion that intoxicants are too risky for them to use.  I have heard this in many psychiatric evaluations: "My father and his father were alcoholics.  I knew I should probably not drink on that basis."  But this knowledge does not seem to be widely disseminated.  

Where does all of this leave us?  Not in a very good place. The DEA is describing its efforts to intercede in what is a massive effort originating from several countries to import highly dangerous substances into the United States. Although it is never overtly discussed this is clearly a national security problem. The immediate problems of deaths and morbidity from drug addiction seem to depend very little on how successful the DEA is in its efforts. The reason for that is the massive promotion of drugs at the cultural level both in direct advertising and false political philosophy equating drug use with freedom. It parallels the use of the Second Amendment to promote the widespread dissemination of firearms – even though there is no similar amendment for drug use. All the popular myths about drug use need to be actively countered and the advantages of a sober life need to be promoted. Those myths are a more subtle but equally dangerous threat to what the DEA is describing in this report.   

 

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

 

References:

1:  Drug Enforcement Administration. National Drug Threat Assessment.  US Department of Justice.  May 2024.  57p.

2:  Case A, Deaton A. Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Dec 8;112(49):15078-83. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1518393112. Epub 2015 Nov 2. PMID: 26575631; PMCID: PMC4679063

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

The Retired Consultant Redux – A Conversation With Two Internists

University Hospital of Zürich (Universitätsspital Zürich, USZ) (Ank Kumar, Infosys Limited) 03

In retirement I run into colleagues who are interested in the process and how it is going. I was greeted with a “How is my favorite retired psychiatrist” yesterday. It originated from a highly qualified subspecialist who was immersed in hospital work when I first met him. We talked briefly about his changing roles over the years going from hospital based acute care practice, to an outpatient specialty practice, to his current role of tertiary consultant seeing the most difficult problems in his field. I told him that was the role I miss the most – seeing the most difficult to diagnose and treat cases and being the one to figure out what to do.

It is not an easy life – especially if you are as neurotic as me.  It involves constant research and revision of approaches. It involves close follow up.  It involves sleepless nights and anxiety.  It involves balancing innovation against not wanting to make a mistake.  Sometimes it involves convincing other people to go along with you when they may be reluctant. It also involves tolerating the suffocating routine of excessive documentation and jumping through unnecessary administrative hoops as well as the occasional overt harassment. But in the end – you end up being a physician that both your patients and colleagues can count on and that’s something.

We discussed the nature of treating these populations. He told me he likened his practice to neurology because of the reputation that the level of esoteric diagnoses are not matched by esoteric treatments and often there is not much that you can do. I never understood this degree of pessimism.  I have been confronted with people who told me their last doctor told them: “Look there is nothing more I can do for you.”  And we were able to make some progress.     

Finally – we discussed the 2 year milestone and how many people leave retirement and have to go back into active practice at that point.  He made the observation that this seems to happen across professions where possible – and it seemed to depend on attitudes to retirement and whether you had anything to do.  He did not think retirement would be a problem.  I estimated he had about another 8-10 years of practice left.  I had my usual thoughts about all of the people I knew who never made it to retirement.  I also thought about retirement from physically taxing work and the problems that involves - not the least of which is adjusting caloric intake to prevent excessive weight gain.  

The second conversation was more technical. It was an opinion about gabapentin.  The patient in question was taking it long term for back pain and had a history of back surgeries. More recently she was on diuretics and other medications for atrial fibrillation and congestive heart failure. She was seeing several specialists and they were dutifully getting all of the correct labs but nobody seemed to notice the gradual increase in creatinine to 1.7 and 2.4.  That correlated clinically with increasing somnolence, ataxia, and falls.  After reading the package insert on gabapentin he called me to discuss a dosage adjustment with renal insufficiency.

I recalled a healthy young man I was treating who became acutely confused and ataxic after he was started on simvastatin by a consultant. In psychiatry, this scenario raises suspicions of intoxicants even in a hospital setting. But given the circumstances I decided to also look for a cause of delirium.  The acute labs showed that he had acute renal failure as an idiosyncratic reaction to the statin and he was transferred to medicine to treat the problem.  The acute renal failure led to the accumulation of gabapentin and the delirium and ataxia.

As we discussed the cases, the internist pointed out the difficulty with today’s fragmented medical care.  All of the medication were ordered and the labs were done – but nobody seemed to be paying any attention to how the patient was doing. It reminded him of a quote from one of his mentors George Magnin, MD who used to say to his Medicine residents: “What are you going to do until the doctor gets here?”

That quote struck me as genius both as a motivating factor and the immediate reality of the situation. When you are confronted with a patient who is having a problem – you need to be able to do something about it. That doesn’t mean that you will always know what to do – and if you don’t you at least need to know how to triage the problem so that the patient gets the correct care.  We try to increase the likelihood that will happen by specialization, subspecialization, and settings to match the illnesses with the specialists, but those matches are far from perfect.

I had this experience to illustrate.  I got a call from an emergency medicine physician who was seeing a patient I was treating for bipolar disorder. I knew him and his family very well from years of treatment. The ED doc wanted me to hospitalize him for acute mania but his wife who was with him said he was not manic and she did not want him admitted to a psychiatric unit.  After a brief description of his symptoms I said: “Put him on the phone so I can talk with him.”  Within 30 seconds I could tell he had a fluent aphasia with paraphasic speech errors.  When the ED doc came back on I told him that this was not mania – but most likely an acute stroke syndrome and he was hospitalized on Neurology where the stroke diagnosis was confirmed.

“What are you going to do until the doctor gets here?” – means that doctor.  The one who can diagnose and treat your problem.  That is the one that matters.  In this era of health apps, checklists, self-diagnosis, electronic health records, telemedicine, and so-called artificial intelligence that is still all that matters.

Being that person is hard to attain and hard to walk away from.

 

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA 



Image credit:  Wikimedia Commons per their CC licensing the details of which are available by clicking on the graphic.

Additional:  The identities of the physicians were anonymized in this post. I doubt that any physician benefits from being associated with me or this blog.


Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Rick Sings - poetry by Phill Taggart



“Well I woke up this morning and I had myself a beer.” Roadhouse Blues (1970) Jim Morrison Lyrics The Doors Composition

Many years ago, I was asking a patient about his morning routine and he replied with the Roadhouse Blues lyric and started laughing. At the time he was taking medications that I prescribed but also seeing a naturopath who was giving him a complex solution of minerals that was supposed to treat his mental illness. His family was more concerned about him than he was concerned about himself.  Severe mental illness leaves a person focused on irrelevant pieces of information out in the environment for amusement/entertainment/meaning while ignoring the basics – like self-care and not standing out too far in public.  Clinicians refer to some of that as inappropriate social behavior, but it is a complex multi-layered problem. The same process can result in a great deal of difficulty staying focused on the necessary day-to-day routine. In that mix, there are boundary problems that can contaminate the most altruistic impulses and affect personal safety.  Phil Taggart does a great job of painting that picture in his book of poetry Rick Sings.

In a brief introduction we meet his brother Rick.  Rick has a severe mental illness that clearly affects his ability to function. I am writing that after reading the entire book and all the poetic descriptions. We find out that Rick has a lot of problems in living, managing his self-care and medications.  There are times when he is not eating well, where he is in an agitated state, where his hygiene is affected, and where he puts his housing security at risk by taking in women who have lost housing or were the victims of violence. His brother is a force to help keep him on track and check in with him.  Those encounters are the basis for this book.

The first images we get are family chaos – the product of mental illness, alcoholism, aggression and violence, and the death of a young sibling.  Rick’s modern-day world is tied in with that early history. Here are two stanzas from the poem Morning Coffee



 








The rest of this poem has stark images of people who come into your life and leave with you liking or not linking them or yourself along the way.  At some point it is hard to know if the memory is that sad or current sadness clouds the memory.

I recently read an essay on how art can be rhetorical in the persuasive sense. This poetry consists of observations and emotions that the imagery elicits. There is no hint of bias – only the empathy elicited by images and situations.  I had not thought of this before but Taggart’s poetry is the perfect medium to communicate the major problems facing people with severe mental illnesses and anyone trying to help them. You can’t help being pulled in when he advises his brother to stay away from the police for his own protection or when he has to let a security guard know that “he’s with me” to avoid awkward social situations.

There is a stream of consciousness flow to the poetry with associations across the lifetimes of Taggart and his brother. I liked this feature because it is the way a lot of people (including myself) think. Focus on the present and in some downtime – think about an event that happened in 1975. When your brother is in the picture – think about common events. Several of those themes run through this book of poetry and it is masterfully done.   No associated explanations – just a description of an event with a universal emotion.

I liked this book of poetry.  In keeping with my book reviews, I like the idea of conditional recommendations.  In this case – liking poetry will help.  It will even be better if poetry stimulates your mental imagery and emotions. I call the writing style of this poetry free verse like E.E. Cummings.  The phrases are also arranged differently on the page to emphasize different thoughts and actions.  If you like that style, you will like this book even more. Beyond liking poetry, this book will potentially help you understand the problem of severe mental illness and its effects on people and their families. Even though there are efforts out there to decrease stigma and attributing stigma to a lack of understanding of the problem – stigma has always been a problematic concept for me. If more people experienced what Phil Taggart puts into his poems there would be a greater understanding. He is a strong voice in this area.  Read this book if you are interested in a deeper understanding the problem.

 

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

 

Reference:

Phil Taggart.  Rick Sings.  Santa Barbara, California. Brandenberg Press 2014: 67pp.  https://philtaggartpoet.com/


 

 

Monday, April 29, 2024

What The Economist doesn’t know about Psychiatry




It is always good to take an in depth look at articles in the popular press about psychiatry – because of the clear antipsychiatry bias. An article from the Economist was posted recently that seemed to get a positive reception in some areas.  In my estimation that reception was not warranted.  Interestingly the same principles of analyzing rhetoric can be applied to this article as the last post on this blog about “doing your own research.”  I will use the same concept by concept approach to examine this article that I used for that video.  At the time the article was posted I read it for free online and I hope it is still available so that any reader here can appreciate the full text.  The author was not listed.

1:  “But her local hospital, in Durham, England, was dismissive, suggesting she had anxiety, a mental-health condition, and that she was probably spending too much time watching videos on TikTok. Her mother describes the experience as “belittling”:

The author begins with a story about an autoimmune condition with many neuropsychiatric manifestations Pediatric Autoimmune-Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcus (PANDAS).  This is a condition that is known within psychiatry for at least 25 years and is covered in major psychiatric textbooks.  The author proceeds to conflate the lack of a definitive diagnosis with deficiencies in psychiatry as if it is totally unknown in the field. It is not and the pathophysiology and neuropsychiatric manifestations are known and taught within the field.  Secondarily if I had to speculate on the medical specialists who are most likely to see people who are told by a physician or family member that “it’s all in your head” – they would be psychiatrists.  We tend to see more of these people than anybody else.  

2: And infections are one small piece of the puzzle. It is increasingly clear that inflammatory disorders and metabolic conditions can also have sizeable effects on mental health, though psychiatrists rarely look for them. All this is symptomatic of large problems in psychiatry.

Psychiatrists have always been more interested in inflammatory and infections conditions affecting the brain than most other specialists.  Griesinger mentions inflammation as a mechanism affecting brain function in his 1845 text on psychiatry (2). It is highly likely that in any community - psychiatrists are making more of these diagnoses than primary care physicians because they know the manifestations and they need to rule out physical causes of mental illnesses to make a psychiatric diagnosis.  All psychiatrists are trained in making these diagnoses and not mistaking them for a mental illness occurring in a healthy person or a person with chronic illnesses not affecting brain function.  The only large problem here is the lack of knowledge about how psychiatrists are really trained.

Inflammatory disorders were used as treatments in the early 20th century.  In the pre-antibiotic era, 5-10% of asylum admissions were due to neurosyphilis and the associated psychiatric manifestations. Some of the early treatments were based on inducing fevers.  Austrian psychiatrist Julius Wagner-Jauregg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1927 for successful treatment of neurosyphilis by inoculating patients with malaria (2).  This work was replicated and additional agents were used to induce fevers by other investigators with similar results. In addition to the experimental results, this represented a sea change in the general attitude of treating psychosis in asylums where a previous biological treatment did not exist.  Subsequent innovations occurred when neuromodulation techniques were introduced in 1932 (5) and psychopharmacology in 1952 (6).

The early focus on gross neuropathology and transition to microanatomy led to the discovery of Alzheimer's Disease in 1906 and Binswanger's Disease a form of vascular dementia in 1894.  Both Alzheimer and Binswanger were considered psychiatrists - Alzheimer by his own designation and training and Binswanger was eventually appointed to head an asylum by age 30.  

As far as "rarely looking for them" goes the top 4 medical conditions I diagnosed in newly seen patients were probably Type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, hypertension, and atrial fibrillation. Any psychiatrist practicing in the last 30 years is aware that psychiatric disorders and pharmacological treatment can be associated with metabolic syndrome and the need to monitor for and prevent that condition. 

3:  Chronic conditions are poorly treated – apparently because they are not cured (paraphrased):

This is always an interesting rhetorical sleight-of-hand. In what other specialty is the expectation that chronic conditions will be cured? It does not take a lot of research to show that nobody is curing most diabetics, hypertensives, asthmatics, arthritics, or patients with a multitude of other chronic conditions. In fact most of these patients remain symptomatic even when they are treated. These are all conditions with clear cut laboratory tests and other disease markers.  These are all conditions where there is at least a speculative biological hypothesis of pathophysiology.  And yet – there is no expectation of cure and in fact much more expected mortality in other specialties. Why is psychiatry different?  It is not.

4:  Some people in the profession believe that biological psychiatry will lead to better characterizations of psychiatric problems including pathophysiology, drug treatment, and pharmacological targets/precision psychiatry (paraphrased):

It is obvious that biological psychiatrists have been at it for decades and much longer.  The journal Biological Psychiatry was founded in 1969 but biology has been a focus of psychiatric research dating back to mid-19th century when attempts were made to observe brain dissection correlates with behavior.  Griesinger (2) documents efforts by both Pinel and Esquirol to document brain abnormalities in severe mental illnesses. In his text he documents brain diseases leading to psychiatric care and associated organ dysfunction at autopsy in patients identified as having severe mental illness.

In the days of asylum care before biological psychiatry, delirious mania had a mortality rate of 75% (7).  That has essentially been reduced to zero with advances in modern biological psychiatry including electroconvulsive therapy and psychopharmacology.  There is probably no better example of advances due to biological psychiatry occurring over decades.

Like all other medical specialties, biological psychiatry is an active area of research with new journals like Molecular Psychiatry (1997) and Translational Psychiatry (2011) that are focused on the latest innovations in biological psychiatry and potential treatment applications.

5:  The DSM or the Bible of Psychiatry does not specify pathophysiology

Any time you see that the DSM is the “Bible of psychiatry” that is a red flag that indicates the author either lacks knowledge about the Bible or the DSM.  Here is a brief primer on the DSM to correct some misconceptions.  That primer emphasizes that the person using it (typically for diagnostic codes used for administrative purposes) is a trained professional and understands its limitations. Chief among those limitations includes ruling out medical causes of psychiatric symptomatology and understanding that it is not a guide for everyman to use for diagnosis and treatment.  Kendler (8) and others have taken it a step further to point out that it is an index of disorders and therefore a starting point – rather than an actual diagnostic guide.  In other words, meeting criteria for a diagnosis is not that same as having the diagnosis.  This is generally true of all codified systems of medical diagnosis.  An example would be the American College of Rheumatology classification criteria.  There is an extensive discussion of these classification criteria compared with diagnostic criteria and why the ACR currently endorses only the former (9).  It is basically the same discussion that Kendler uses in describing the indexing system – that there is sufficient heterogeneity in clinical presentations over time and geographical areas that every case needs to be individually considered. Here is the rationale from the leading text on systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) (10):  

“The classification criteria do not contain a complete list of all the possible manifestations of lupus.  The manifestations of SLE often develop over a period of time, sometimes years, making the diagnosis more difficult at initial presentation. The diagnosis of lupus is made on clinical grounds, supported by laboratory data and depends highly on the physician’s knowledge and experience. (author’s emphasis)”

Despite the title, the DSM is not a guide to diagnosis or treatment. People who do not “meet criteria” are not automatically excluded from treatment consideration. Separate knowledge about psychopathology and diagnostic formulation is necessary. Speaking to the author’s concern about the lack of specific etiologies – even the skeletal classification and indexing framework of the DSM has chapters on clear medical, toxicological, and neurological causes of mental disorders.

The Economist dates psychiatry’s “Bible” back to 1952.  That would have been the DSM-I.  I encourage anyone who is interested to read the 6 page Forward to that document.  It started initially to standardize nomenclature. Each training program was using their own version of nomenclature as well as the military.  When trained psychiatrists went out to practice in the community – there was no standard nomenclature being used to described similar phenomenon and the requirements of military and civilian nomenclature were different. The secondary goal was to use this nomenclature to collect statistics that could be used to improve the necessary infrastructure and resources to treat these disorders.  All of this can be done without any specific reference to pathophysiology in both psychiatry and the rest of medicine.    

Whatever your take away from this post, The Economist knows very little about psychiatry and medicine. But that should not be too surprising.  The tone and factual content clearly resemble much of what you see on the Internet and in the press about psychiatry. That does not make it any less wrong.  If you are really interested in what is going on in the field – I would recommend reading the general literature in the field or summaries about it. The popular press – newspapers and magazines – is clearly not up to the task.

6:  Attempts to find causal mechanisms for mental illnesses have failed (paraphrased):

News flash – that is true of every other complex disease as well as the medication used to treat them.  This post illustrates that fact with medication used to treat multiple sclerosis.  The table lists 18 FDA approved drugs – many of which modify the course of the illness but in every case the specific mechanism of action of the drug is unknown.

7:  Genetics has been a clinical “flop” (paraphrased):

It would probably be a good idea to get the opinion of an expert in psychiatric genetics.  The article seems to focus on the issue of polygenic risk analysis (PRA) and those studies generally have low effect sizes due to the number of genes studied.  Any commercial assessment of a genome will result in hundreds of these profiles – most of them for non-psychiatric illnesses. The example given above illustrates polygenic risk scores (PRS) when the small risk factors (both protective and potentially causative) are summed and compared to a standard sample so that 100% is highest percentile risk in the sample and 0% is the lowest. This is only one approach and there are major psychiatric initiatives in this space doing ongoing research. PRA/PRS is accepted science at this point but the widespread clinical utility is not known for practically all polygenic disorders.

Recent examples given by Kendler (11) in his commentary on whether psychiatric disorders are brain diseases points to the importance of genetics in psychiatry.  To this day there are endless debates, typically by people who are not trained to be psychiatrists that psychiatric disorders are somehow independent of brain substrate. In other words, even though it is widely acknowledged that a brain is required for mental life – there is no evidence at the molecular level that an alteration in brain function causes mental illness. Contrary to The Economist, Kendler states: “I use the most robust empirical findings in all of psychiatry—that genetic risk factors impact causally and substantially on liability to all major psychiatric disorders.”  He quotes the recent literature illustrating that risk variants for schizophrenia are located only in brain tissue.  Similar evidence is accumulating for bipolar disorder and major depression. This correlation of strongest known risk factors and brain substrate location is good evidence of specific genetic effects in the brain. Similar work is being done to identify signaling systems, proteins, and physiological processes underlying the DSM classifiers.  Once again, this is similar to the approaches being taken with all complex non-psychiatric diseases. 

8:  Biology is coming, whether psychiatry is ready or not:

When I saw this caption – it seemed like a joke.  Over the 40 years of my career there has been a constant battle based on the false dichotomy of biological psychiatrists and psychotherapy focused psychiatrists. That left out important additional identities including medical psychiatrists, neuropsychiatrists, and community psychiatrists. Practically all the criticism in the press has been that psychiatrists are too biological. I could probably write a book about this – but in this case suffice it to say that The Economist has not done much homework. The smattering of research projects listed in the last several paragraphs about immunology and metabolism ignores that this type of research has been going on for decades and gradually making progress. 

Every psychiatrist is trained in the biology of medicine and psychiatry - just like me.  We are willing to incorporate the latest research innovations and look forward to them. Biology comes as no surprise.

 

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

 

 

 

References:

1:  “Many mental-health conditions have bodily triggers: Psychiatrists are at long last starting to connect the dots.:  April 24, 2024.  In the print edition this story is under the general heading "Psychiatry’s blind spots".  No author was listed for the online version that I read.

2:  Griesinger W: Die Pathologie und Therapie der Psychischen Krankheiten: für Aerzte und Studirende. (The pathology and therapy of mental illnesses, for doctors and students). Stuttgart, Germany, Verlagvon Adolph Krabbe, 1845  https://www.deutschestextarchiv.de/book/view/griesinger_psychische_1845?p=47

3:  Wagner-Jauregg J. The treatment of general paresis by inoculation of malaria. J Nerv Ment Dis. 1922;55:369–375. [Google Scholar] [Ref list]

4:  Tsay CJ. Julius Wagner-Jauregg and the legacy of malarial therapy for the treatment of general paresis of the insane. Yale J Biol Med. 2013 Jun 13;86(2):245-54. PMID: 23766744; PMCID: PMC3670443.

5:  Gazdag G, Ungvari GS. Electroconvulsive therapy: 80 years old and still going strong. World J Psychiatry. 2019 Jan 4;9(1):1-6. doi: 10.5498/wjp.v9.i1.1. PMID: 30631748; PMCID: PMC6323557.

6:  Ban TA. Fifty years chlorpromazine: a historical perspective. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2007 Aug;3(4):495-500. PMID: 19300578; PMCID: PMC2655089.

7:  Bell, L., 1849. On a form of disease resembling some advanced stage of mania and fever.  Am. J. Insanity 6, 97–127. 

8:  Kendler KS. The Phenomenology of Major Depression and the Representativeness and Nature of DSM Criteria. Am J Psychiatry. 2016 Aug 1;173(8):771-80. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2016.15121509. Epub 2016 May 3. PMID: 27138588.

9:  Aggarwal R, Ringold S, Khanna D, Neogi T, Johnson SR, Miller A, Brunner HI, Ogawa R, Felson D, Ogdie A, Aletaha D, Feldman BM. Distinctions between diagnostic and classification criteria? Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2015 Jul;67(7):891-7. doi: 10.1002/acr.22583. PMID: 25776731; PMCID: PMC4482786.

10:  Rudinskaya A, Reyes-Thomas J, Lahita R.  The clinical presentation of systemic lupus erythematosus and laboratory diagnosis. In: Lahita RG, Costenbader KH, Bucala R, Mani S, Khamashta MA.  Lahita’s Systemic Lupus Erythematosus. 6th ed.  London, England:  Elsevier, 2021: 316.

11:  Kendler KS. Are Psychiatric Disorders Brain Diseases?-A New Look at an Old Question. JAMA Psychiatry. 2024 Apr 1;81(4):325-326. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2024.0036. PMID: 38416478.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Why “Reading” and “Doing Your Own Research” are not nearly enough….

 


 

Medical training is an exercise in repeatedly meeting people who know a lot more about the field than you do and hoping to learn something in the process.  It happens regularly – often several times a day.  It is a common occurrence to meet people with encyclopedic knowledge – not just of textbooks and papers but disease patterns and presentations as well as the best treatment approaches.  The knowledge can be obtained through straight didactics, informal seminars, bedside interactions, and direct observation.  It can be affiliative or adversarial. In other words, you might get the attending physician who asks you a series of questions until you run your knowledge base dry or you might get the attending who realizes that your life is difficult and details the pathophysiology while pointing you to the latest review to read.

All that dynamic learning happens in a certain time frame where everyone must focus on the problems of the day.  The recent COVID-19 epidemic is a striking case in point. During the years of my training and practice the pandemic of interest was the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1, HIV-2). I started to see those patients in residency training – typically for the neuropsychiatric manifestations. At the time there were full isolation precautions and we had to wear surgical gowns, caps, and masks to see the patients. There was also the concern about needlestick injuries and injuries sustained by during surgery on HIV positive patients – that was subsequently shown to be a rare occurrence.  

All primary care and specialty physicians need to have a knowledge of HIV/AIDS – because of the potential protean manifestations, the need to maintain medications, and for infection control purposes.  It is also useful to recall epidemiological and infectious disease concepts – the most relevant being that for a while the infectious agent of the disease was not known.  Early in the course it was characterized by epidemiological features. When the virus was eventually isolated – steady progress was made in the development of antivirals to the point where the virus can be suppressed and is no longer detectable.

Over the course of learning about the illness and its treatment – I observed a heavy toll on treatment providers. There were no effective treatments early on.  I had lunch every day with an infectious disease team who ran one of the early HIV/AIDS clinics. Providing care in that setting took an emotional toll on them.

Against that 40 year backdrop – Aaron Rodgers recent press conference stands in tragic contrast.  For a time, Rodgers assumed the role of inscrutable new age guru.  He refused to state his COVID vaccine status but talked in detail about the rejuvenative properties of ayahuasca.  But I want to focus on his 208-word commentary on HIV, COVID, and Dr. Fauci. The full video is linked above for viewing.  I will address his commentary on a subject-by-subject basis.

1:  There was a “game plan” in the 1980s to create a pandemic with a “virus that’s going wild.”

Multiple lines of evidence show that HIV resulted from cross species transmission of Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) existing in African primate species. The transmission occurred through infected blood or bodily fluid exposure from hunting (1).  The key concept is that many human pandemics originate from cross species transmission.  Further – there is ample evidence that the cross over to humans occurred decades before the first AIDS fatality occurred in the US in the 1980s.  The only "game plan" in place was evolution in nature - over millions of years.

2:  Dr. Fauci was given $350 million dollars to research this:

Dr. Fauci was appointed head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in 1982. NIAID is one of 27 institutes and centers of the National Institute of Health (NIH).  The funding for AIDS research is available on several sites. In this paper Tables 4.2 and 4.3 give the research dollars as well as the distribution by institute. In 1982 for example – there was $3.6M in AIDS funding.  Looking at the 1990-1991 allocation NIAID got 53.1% of the research allocation. The detailed allocation of that grant money consists of intramural and extramural research funding as well as funding clinical centers of research with adequate patient numbers to advance the field. From that paper:

“The need for more—and more appropriate—facilities specifically for AIDS work was acutely apparent in early 1988 when NIH director James Wyngaarden and NIH AIDS coordinator Anthony Fauci testified before several congressional committees (U.S. Congress, 1988a:259, 1988c:331). Their concerns were echoed in the June 1988 report of the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic. The commission noted that plans for AIDS office and lab space were seriously delayed, and recommended that intramural construction and instrumentation needs be assessed and made a high priority in future budget requests…”

When Dr. Fauci assumed control of NIAID, the total budget of that agency was $350M.  He described it as a relatively secondary institution, that he built up to a $6.3B agency over the next 38 years (3). 

3:  The only drug they came up with was AZT:

 Azidothymidine (AZT) was developed in 1964 by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) as a potential anti-cancer therapy.  It was ineffective but was included in screening as an HIV treatment where it stopped viral replication without damaging normal cells.  It was the first FDA approved drug to treat AIDS in 1987. Advancing Clinical Therapeutics Globally for HIV/AIDS and Other Infections (ACTG) was founded at that time along with other networks though NIAID to conduct clinical trials in therapeutics for AIDS. Subsequent trials established more safe and effective doses as well as demonstrating a delayed onset of AIDS in HIV infected persons with AZT making it the first effective HIV treatment.

NIAID funded research for combination therapy, triple drug therapy and novel agents to the point where there are now 30 anti-retroviral drugs and new classes of therapeutic agents.  During Dr. Fauci’s tenure at NIAID, research has gone from antiretroviral treatment (ART) based remission to clinical trials looking at strategies for potential ART-free remission of HIV or cure (4).  That goal has not been realized but there is no question that the research work on HIV has been productive resulting in reduced transmission and mortality.

 4:  An “environment” was created where only one drug worked

The environment was a research environment looking for treatments at a time where there were so many AIDS related deaths that it led to public outcry and activism. AZT was discovered as effective in a standard screening protocol, but additional clinical trials were necessary to establish doses, safety, and efficacy for FDA approval.

5:  Just like HIV – only remdesivir worked for COVID until there was a vaccine

Just like HIV – additional therapies became available for COVID (SARS-CoV-2) including nirmatrelvir-ritonavir (Paxlovid), simnotrelvir-ritonavir, and high titer convalescent plasma.  A recent review of the issue of vaccine versus pills for COVID concludes that it is a false dilemma and that they may have complementary roles (5). There is active research continuing in SARS-CoV-2 antivirals and no reason to expect that there will not be many additional medications.

6:  Dr. Fauci had a conflict of interest because of a “stake in the Moderna vaccine.”

Dr. Fauci has no stock in Pharma companies. The “stake” in vaccines are royalty payments that researchers are obligated to take, the majority occurring before the COVID pandemic. That standard and the average payments have been documented in the medical literature where Dr. Fauci is on record as having donated payments to charity (6).  Without having a detailed list of royalty payments, what they were for, and the outcomes it is difficult to make any additional comments except to say that there was no violation of NIH policy – in fact not accepting the payments was a violation. Royalties are based on discoveries and not getting products to market, FDA approval, or sales.  My further speculation is that the royalties are a small fraction of actual sales and company profits and the original NIH policy was probably designed to retain talented researchers who would otherwise be lost to private industry. Major universities and research institutes generally allow their faculty to accept consulting and royalty fees. I have worked in several settings where those arrangements were spelled out in the initial employment contract, including intellectual property ownership.

7:  Pfizer is also “criminally corrupt” based on a fine that was paid.

Large fines against pharmaceutical companies are the rule rather than the exception.  In looking at this list of the largest settlements most of the fines are based on regulatory laws having to do with off label promotion of drugs beyond what is indicated in the FDA package insert. Practically all of the penalties have to do with marketing rather than research or production. It has been well known for decades that Pharma companies aggressively market their products to physicians, hospitals, clinics, and now direct-to-consumer advertising to potential patients. You could look at a list like this and decide against using a company’s product – but it might mean not taking a potentially safe and effective drug.  The same type of enforcement actions are taken against companies in other fields such as information technology.

8:  People who can “do their own research” and “read” are commonly vilified for that if they question authority

There is a basic difference between authority and expertise. The only vilification that I have noticed is of experts. Dr. Fauci is an extreme example but during COVID it extended to many local public health officials. It was a direct product of the minimization of COVID by President Trump and many of his officials as well as the MAGA movement.  Further it has led to political violence that includes threats of physical harm to Dr. Fauci and many other public health officials.  These threats are unprecedented and have been attributed to right wing political rhetoric.

9:  Why should science be trusted if it can’t be questioned.

Science is continuously questioned and this is probably the most significant public misunderstanding.  Science is a process where results are continuously challenged and updated. The politization of the COVID pandemic illustrates what happens when people who are not trained in the scientific method get involved. Suddenly each scientific modification means that somebody was wrong or lying. Scientists are treated like politicians and the politicians feel free to say anything that is not grounded in science. 

That is not how science works. It takes actual observations over time to test hypotheses.  As one example – I have collected about 200 hypotheses on the pathophysiology of depression over the past 40 years and to date – there are not sufficient observations to prove or disprove them and get to the level of a theory of depression. An equivalent scenario is the endless speculation of the lab leak hypotheses versus the cross-species transmission hypothesis of COVID origins.  Although the probability lies in the direction of cross species transmission – there are insufficient direct observations to prove one versus the other and ample discussions of the lab leak hypothesis by people with a complete lack of expertise.

Finally, with the errors in Rodger’s statement – I would be remiss if I did not mention Brandolini’s Law. Simply stated:

“The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

This is true – especially when the false argument does not have to be based on facts, process, or rigorous standards. The politization of COVID and many other health issues by the extreme right wing should be a lesson that is not forgotten.  This video clip is a case in point.

 

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


Supplementary 1:  The NIH policy on royalty payments to inventors can be viewed at this link.  The abbreviation IC stands for the Institutes and Centers of the NIH.  More detailed information can be found at this link.  The NIH also has conflict of interest policy (see conflict of interest in Appendix 1).

 Supplementary 2:  A few relevant titles from my library - note dates. 


 


References:

1:  Sharp PM, Hahn BH. Origins of HIV and the AIDS pandemic. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2011 Sep;1(1):a006841. doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a006841. PMID: 22229120; PMCID: PMC3234451.

2:  Institute of Medicine (US) Committee to Study the AIDS Research Program of the National Institutes of Health. The AIDS Research Program of the National Institutes of Health. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1991. 4, Supporting the NIH AIDS Research Program. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234085/

3:  Anthony Fauci: a scientific adviser's role from HIV to COVID-19. Bull World Health Organ. 2023 Jan 1;101(1):8-9. doi: 10.2471/BLT.23.030123. PMID: 36593776; PMCID: PMC9795384.

4:  Schou MD, Søgaard OS, Rasmussen TA. Clinical trials aimed at HIV cure or remission: new pathways and lessons learned. Expert Rev Anti Infect Ther. 2023 Jul-Dec;21(11):1227-1243. doi: 10.1080/14787210.2023.2273919. Epub 2023 Nov 8. PMID: 37856845.

5:  Papadakos SP, Mazonakis N, Papadakis M, Tsioutis C, Spernovasilis N. Pill versus vaccine for COVID-19: Is there a genuine dilemma? Ethics Med Public Health. 2022 Apr;21:100741. doi: 10.1016/j.jemep.2021.100741. Epub 2021 Nov 23. PMID: 34841029; PMCID: PMC8608621.

6:  Tanne JH. Royalty payments to staff researchers cause new NIH troubles. BMJ. 2005 Jan 22;330(7484):162. doi: 10.1136/bmj.330.7484.162-a. PMID: 15661767; PMCID: PMC545012.

7:  Mehellou Y, De Clercq E. Twenty-six years of anti-HIV drug discovery: where do we stand and where do we go? J Med Chem. 2010 Jan 28;53(2):521-38. doi: 10.1021/jm900492g. PMID: 19785437.

8:  Burke RV, Distler AS, McCall TC, Hunter E, Dhapodkar S, Chiari-Keith L, Alford AA. A qualitative analysis of public health officials' experience in California during COVID-19: priorities and recommendations. Front Public Health. 2023 Sep 13;11:1175661. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2023.1175661. PMID: 37771831; PMCID: PMC10525347.

9:  Ward JA, Stone EM, Mui P, Resnick B. Pandemic-Related Workplace Violence and Its Impact on Public Health Officials, March 2020‒January 2021. Am J Public Health. 2022 May;112(5):736-746. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2021.306649. Epub 2022 Mar 17. PMID: 35298237; PMCID: PMC9010912.

 10:  Royster J, Meyer JA, Cunningham MC, Hall K, Patel K, McCall TC, Alford AA. Local public health under threat: Harassment faced by local health department leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Public Health Pract (Oxf). 2024 Jan 24;7:100468. doi: 10.1016/j.puhip.2024.100468. PMID: 38328527; PMCID: PMC10847788.