I was reading a copy of JAMA the other day and a story written by a transplant surgeon Jeremy M. Blumberg, MD. It was an excellent description of surgical training to the point of autonomy and then the nagging uncertainty of whether the surgery you have trained for years to do will go well. Will you avoid mistakes? He describes his first transplant as an attending:
"This operating room was new to me; the nurses were friendly but foreign. The instruments were familiar, but somehow felt different - was there just a barely palpable increase in tension in the muscles of my hand causing this effect? The patient's blood vessels were hard, thickened from years of dialysis and diabetes. She bled more than usual when we reperfused the kidney. It felt as if every last molecule of epinephrine had rushed out of my glands and nerves, squeezing my blood vessels and taunting my intestines to detonate...." (p. 1676)
I hear you brother. I thought that level of anxiety over the balance between doing the impossible and not doing harm might fade away over the years but it has not. In psychiatry a lot of it depends on the level of complexity that your patients have. It can be an acute situation but more often than not - it is a problem throughout the day that you take home with you. Additional medical conditions, non psychiatric medications, polypharmacy, and difficult to treat disorders all compound the problem. I have designed a hierarchy to illustrate what I mean. It turns out that when I think about it, the acute problems seen by psychiatrists are not at the top. The problems at the top are typically problems where there is no good guidance, where you are on your own, left with biologically determined probabilities and you need to come up with your best estimate of what will happen given current circumstances. The problems encompass both psychiatry and the medicine associated with psychiatry.
Let me provide an example of both. In the case of the psychiatric problem the usual scenario is a case of impaired judgment. Is the person at risk for death or self injury? Are they able to cooperate with the assessment and treatment plan. Do they seem changed to the point that you can no longer accept their responses as being accurate? Are you treating them for acute and chronic suicidal ideation and behavior? Any acute care psychiatrist ends up assessing thousands of the situations across the course of their career. It is often much more complex than an acute assessment. Many of these scenarios unfold in the context of ongoing psychotherapy and in order for the patient to be able to improve some risk is taken. In other cases there are calls to warn people and in extreme cases - calls to the police to check on a person who might be in trouble. I have not seen it studied but the stress of these situations for the psychiatrist involved is well known. Overthinking the situation in order to avoid the unexpected call that one of your patients has suicided or killed someone is common. In my conversations with medical students over the years, one of the main deterrents to psychiatric residency is the worry about suicide prediction.
The medical situations are as complex and they frequently have no clear solution. A common scenario is that the person has a severe mental illness and they develop a problem that leads to to rethinking the medication they are taking. A common scenario is a person on maintenance therapy who suddenly develops a renal or hepatic problem necessitating a change in therapy. The best example is bipolar disorder and lithium therapy. Lithium remains the drug of choice for many people with bipolar disorder and it can be highly effective. When I first started to practice it was common to see people who had repeated institutionalizations for bipolar disorder suddenly stabilized on lithium. Their functional capacity was restored and they were able to return to work and establish families. In those early days, the issue of lithium nephrotoxicity was not clearly observed. There was a major study of people on lithium maintenance for decades that showed no difference in renal function. In the last 15-20 years most nephrologists agree that lithium can lead to renal insufficiency and failure in a minority of patients on lithium therapy. In the case of a person that lithium has been working well for 30 years, there is no guarantee that anything else will work as good. That translates to no hospitalizations in a long time to frequent hospitalizations every year. Monitoring that therapy and in some cases following the patient while they are in dialysis or after transplantation is on example of a situation that you can't leave at the office.
In many ways, the stress and anxiety in psychiatric practice is a measure of attempting to predict the unpredictable. Psychiatry has accurately said that psychiatrists can't predict future behavior or rare events to explain why all suicides and homicides cannot be prevented. But some sort of probability statement is inherent in all medical practice. I would estimate it still happens to me about every three weeks. Something isn't right and I don't have an exact answer. It becomes an obsession to an extent. Laying awake in bed. Getting up to do some additional research but realizing ahead of time that the yield is low. Realizing that no matter what decision you make - all of the outcomes are probably going to be suboptimal. You always get to the point where you can feel the adrenaline molecules rushing and your heart pounding. You know you are tense and starting to break into a light sweat. You readjust yourself in bed and realize your back and shoulders are as tight as a frozen hydraulic jack. You might actually check your pulse and blood pressure and find that they are elevated. It goes on like this until something happens and the intellectual crisis abates. Sometimes that takes a while - at one point months and a beta blocker to break up the stress induced tachycardia and hypertension.
No I don't have generalized anxiety disorder - I am a doctor trying to deal with the uncertainties of being human.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA