Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015 and......

I was going to try to post about alcohol consumption prior to New years Eve, but am still working on that post.  Instead, I found myself reacting to a post on LinkedIn entitled "10 Warning Signs That Your Psychiatrist Is Not A Good Fit" by Amanda Itzkoff, MD.  Look for it on LinkedIN if you are a member and see what you think.  I found it fairly stark and negative.  I found myself immediately typing up my own top ten list on how you know you have found a competent psychiatrist.  That may not fit the usual blogger message that critical statements that apply to only a few is the only reason for commentary.  One of my reasons for writing this blog is that the tremendous number of colleagues who I personally know are all very competent and the list is a composite of what anyone would find walking in to talk with any one of them.  That list follows.

I had thought about posting a list of what I plan to continue to do here in the coming year but decided that was unnecessary.  You can certainly go to any number of blogs to find out what is wrong with psychiatry or psychiatrists.  Much of it is hyperbole.  I hope that you will find what I write here is a realistic antidote to those other sites.

    Top Ten Signs Your Psychiatrist Is Competent

1.  You are understood.

Your psychiatrist makes it very clear to you that he/she understands the problem and all of the mitigating factors by formulating the problem and treatment plan, restating it to you, and giving you useful advice.  That also includes discussing the relationship that you have with the psychiatrist and any concerns that you have about it.  That is one aspect of seeing a psychiatrist that differs from seeing other physicians.  You should be comfortable bringing up any concerns and clarifying any potential misunderstandings.  Your psychiatrist should also be able to answer the basic question about whether you have any diagnosis or problem that requires treatment.  Your psychiatrist should be focused on a discussion of your problems and your best interest should be the focus of treatment.

2.  Your psychiatrist is an expert.

Your psychiatrist has technical expertise in the field and is comfortable discussing new treatments and innovation in the field ranging from psychotherapy to brain science.  That includes an awareness of the current limitations of treatment.

3.  Your psychiatrist knows medicine.

During the initial assessment and beyond, your psychiatrist pays close attention to any other medical problems that you have and how the treatment he/she prescribes might affect those conditions.  That includes being able to diagnose new medical conditions that can lead to psychiatric presentations and ordering the appropriate tests to follow potential complications of any new treatments or how new treatments might impact existing conditions.  That includes a willingness and an ability to talk with the other generalists and specialists providing your medical care.

4.  Your psychiatrist takes enough time.

The assessment and treatment of complicated problems takes time.  Many psychiatrists are in clinics where there are allowed only brief periods of time (10 to 20 minutes) for assessment and treatment.  Many people are satisfied with that amount of time, but if you are not - a different treatment setting may offer more time.  That can be discussed with the current psychiatrist and a referral to psychiatrists practicing in different settings can be obtained.

5.  If medications are involved your psychiatrist thoroughly explains the risks, benefits, and limitations of treatment.

Like most areas of medicine, medical treatments have their limitations.  That includes medications that are not completely effective in alleviating symptoms, side effects, and occasional very serious side effects.  Your psychiatrist should be able to help you negotiate that area and provide you with more detailed information for further study on request.  You should believe that your psychiatrist is taking any concern you have about side effects very seriously.  The discussion of side effects is as important as a discussion of potential therapeutic effects.  Any informed discussion of medical treatment should also include a discussion of non-medical approaches.  Many people are surprised to learn than non-medical approaches are more effective than medications in the treatment of several severe mental health problems.

6.  Your psychiatrist knows about addiction.

A significant number of people being treated by psychiatrists have problems with addiction.  Addiction can cause psychiatric problems and complicate the care of psychiatric problems.  Even if your psychiatrist is not an addiction specialist, he/she should be able to advise you in how to get well and not increase the risk for relapse if you are sober.  Your psychiatrist should also be able to advise you in approaches to your problems if you are not sober.  Chronic pain is also an associated problem and your psychiatrist should be able to make an assessment of your chronic pain problem and how it affects associated mental health and addiction problems.   

7.  Your psychiatrist is able to tell you about things that you do not want to hear.

That can cover a broad range of topics from your expectations about medication and psychotherapy, to unrealistic expectations, to boundary problems involving what appear to be straightforward problems like filling out a disability form.  One example would be concerns about a diagnosis of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  A lot of adults seek treatment for this problem and in many cases they are also expecting an approach that leads to enhanced cognition.  A consulting psychiatrist should be able to say that they do not have ADHD and that stimulant medications are not currently indicated for cognitive enhancement.  

8.   Your psychiatrist is concerned about your safety.

One of the characteristics of some mental health problems is that the safety of the person involved is compromised.   Psychiatrists are trained to make these assessments and determine a plan to address the problem.  Many psychiatric disorders result in impaired insight and judgment that is restored once the primary problem is treated.  It is often useful to have a discussion about that in advance.  Some states have a psychiatric advanced directive that is useful to direct your care in the event of an acute episode of illness that affects your judgment.  We live in a litigious society and physicians are often accused of “covering” themselves by making very conservative decisions.  These decisions are most likely driven more by safety concerns than malpractice concerns.  

9.   Your psychiatrist is willing to talk with your family.

You should be certain that your confidentiality is protected at all times per an explicit agreement with your psychiatrist.  That agreement should include emergency contingencies and advise you about the statutes in your state that affect confidentiality.  You should also expect that when you want your psychiatrist to talk with your family that he/she will do that.  For certain aspects of treatment planning such as discharge planning from hospitals and gathering diagnostic information, discussions with family are critical.

10.   Your psychiatrist is mindful of your financial concerns.

Mental health services are the most rationed services in medical care in the US.  That typically results in more out-of-pocket costs for people receiving psychiatric care than other types of medical or surgical care.  Your psychiatrist should be able to discuss the cost aspects of all forms of care.  That includes medication costs and also the cost of ongoing psychotherapy. Cost effective alternatives for both psychotherapy and medical assessment and treatment should be as easily discussed as any other aspect of treatment.  Your psychiatrist is often placed in an impossible situation by the insurance industry.  The insurance industry often makes it seem like your psychiatrist is responsible for decisions that are really the result of insurance industry rationing.  Any concerns you have about the financial basis for decisions should be clarified with your psychiatrist.

Happy New Year!

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


  1. An excellent Top Ten list! I couldn't agree more.

    Happy New Year.

  2. Agree, this is a good list (and I think to myself, "Am I good enough?" Well, that's my issue!

  3. Thank you for writing this. The second that post went up, I regretted it & wished instead Id posted exactly what you've done here - 10 ways you know your psychiatrist is competent & a good fit. Thank you for pointing this out, and rectifying the situation with your post.
    Amanda Itzkoff, MD

  4. Happy New Year to you too. I like your list. It reflects your role as an "antidote" to psychiatric critics, while still leaving individual practitioners to stand or fall on their own merits.

    Any top-ten list is a little arbitrary. Certainly, competent psychiatrists know about addiction. But no less so, the process of aging. And the disparate social pressures on males and females over the life span. And the role of nutrition, exercise, and other "lifestyle" factors in physical and mental well-being. And so on.  Your post inspired one of my own, which may stir up more dust than it settles.  Cheers.

  5. Thanks - I read your post and like it as well. I think it addresses the hard work of psychiatry and our role as a projective test. In reading you post, I am also reminded of the fact that a technical manual for a medical specialty (as in these are the skills required) can be done. The ACP did one for Internal Medicine a few years ago. Now that it is clear that regulatory bodies have significant conflicts of interest (high salaries, increased revenue, increased power over physicians) it is time that somebody called them on the fact that their attitude is basically "Pay us the money and we will test you on everything. Guess what we are thinking."

    All of the necessary skills and areas of expertise can be specified. I would even take it two steps further. I think the specific patterns of illness that need to be observed in training can be specified and further that this could be expected to influence the selection of electives as far back as medical school.