Saturday, September 24, 2016

An Excursion into the Psychiatric News - Blurred Lines Between Business and Professional Organizations

Psychiatry Eclipsed

Before anyone says that this is me going off the rails again - consider one small factor.  For over 30 years I have been paying the American Psychiatric Association (APA) significant amounts of money in annual dues.  Last year it was about $935.  During some of those years, I thought it might be useful to also donate to their political action committee and I gave them significantly more money.  All the time, I was expecting something to reverse the inexorable deterioration in the practice environment  and the rationing of mental health services.  During that time, I witnessed first hand the deterioration of psychiatric services in the state of Minnesota to the point that there is now a mandate that county sheriffs have priority in admitting their mentally ill prisoners to state psychiatric hospitals.  The psychiatrists in the state have no say in who gets admitted to these facilities or the severely rationed number of inpatient beds in the state.  The reason for professional organizations as I understand them is to speak for and advance the profession, support its members and advocate policies that benefit the people that interact with the profession.  In the case of psychiatry that is the patients that we treat, their families, and the larger society.  All I have to do is pick up a copy of the Psychiatric News to doubt that these mandates are very relevant anymore.

I will say in advance that in my assessment the APA does a fair job in terms of education and professionalism.  I have criticized them in this area in the past for not keeping the treatment guidelines up to date and relevant.  Subsequent to that there was a new guideline published.  Access to the educational materials is not contained in the membership dues.  A subscription to Psychiatry Online or the CME Journal Focus are additional charges as are CME credits for reading articles in the American Journal of Psychiatry.  There is also a CD version of courses and presentations at the APA Annual Meeting that is available for a significant cost.  The educational and professional materials are definitely available and some of them are first rate - but they do come at a price.

My biggest problem with the APA has been the total lack of rigor in countering the deterioration of the practice environment and in many cases seeming to directly participate in initiatives that are counter to the interests of psychiatrists and their patients.  Thumbing through the September 16, 2016 edition of the Psychiatric News provides some ready examples.

On page 1, there is a story Everett Appointed head of New SAMHSA Office.  The story is all about APA President Elect Anita Everett, MD assuming a new position as chief medical officer at SAMHSA - the lead federal agency for mental health and substance use treatment.  A direct quote from Dr. Everett: "Having a psychiatrist as a member of the leadership team at SAMHSA will enable psychiatrists to join other mental health and public health professionals in guiding the federal component of the nation's behavioral health systems."  My emphasis on behavioral health.  As far as I am concerned SAMHSA is a pro-managed care government bureaucracy - like most of them.  Secondly, there are plenty of psychiatrists out there who have been chief medical officers for managed care companies and I would challenge anyone to tell me why they are necessary and what they have accomplished.  Managed care companies tell psychiatrists what to do.  They are not interested in a reasonable practice environment, reasonable inpatient settings of even professional standards.  They are interested in cheap, rationed care by overworked clinicians.  I don't doubt Dr. Everett's qualifications or good intentions.  I don't think I am going out on a limb too far to say that she is going to be severely restricted by the current bureaucracy with a strong managed care bias.  That is not good for psychiatrists and it certainly is not good for patients.

The other story on page 1 seems worse - Are Psychiatrists prepared for Health Care Reform?  Yes and No.   I really can't think of a more nauseating term in the medical literature than health care reform.  I have been hearing those hot little words for the entire length of my career.  I heard them from the Clintons back in the days when Hillary Clinton headed up the health care reform efforts during the first Clinton presidency.  Some students of the topic like to recall that for one reason or another the initiative worked on by Hillary Clinton was not successful.  I think that depends on the standard.  There certainly was no expected global program, but it did make managed care a household word and set managed care as the predominant bias in all further discussions of health care reform.  Like most history - people seem to have forgotten this and the Clinton administration (and all that followed) as having a strong managed care bias.  The article suggests that psychiatrists need to get on board with the collaborative care model - another managed care rationing technique.  In the span of 3 decades psychiatry has gone from protesting managed care rationing (especially because it affects us and our patients the most) to suggesting you really have to get on board with this.  The usual buzzwords like further workforce development and merit-based payment reforms are evident.  When professional standards are abandoned what is merit-based payment reform? In all likelihood it has to do with rationing techniques rather than quality medical care.  Paragraph after paragraph in this article read like a managed care playbook.  Maybe the only way to see through all of this pro management rhetoric is to have actually worked in one of these systems of care.  Try working in one with a manager who is reimbursed to extract the maximum amount of productivity while not providing resources to physicians in the system.  In that case I believe the management buzz word is creativity.  In a rationed environment there is often an audacious statement about creativity as a solution rather than additional personnel.  Most reasonable people would be shocked at what constitutes merit-based payment or the hold back procedures before you can get to that level.  Just another in a long line of meaningless cliches flowing from health care reform.

As you might imagine I was a little tense and clammy as I went on to page 2.  There I was an editorial piece by APA President Maria A. Oquendo, MD.  It was title Why 'Physician Heal Thyself' Does Not Work.  I was mildly optimistic that she might come to the same conclusion that I have about physician burnout - it is not a disease it is just bad management.  Dr. Oquendo began  with a description of the recent suicides of a psychiatric resident and a medical student.  She presents the epidemiology of physician suicide and suicidal ideation.  She points out for example that suicide is the second leading cause of death for physicians between the ages of 24 and 35.  She discusses the stigma of a psychiatric diagnosis and the gap between problems and who gets treated.  Her solution is self identification of depression and excessive alcohol use.  There seem to be other factors that are operative.  She quotes a six fold jump in PHQ-9 scores during internship - using that as a metric for depression.  I can't help but think how physicians and trainees are more isolated now than ever.  No matter what the setting we had great teams when I was an intern and resident.  We took care of one another and we had attending physicians who cared.  I addressed some of that in my previous burnout article.  Nobody discusses what it is like to train in a managed care and rationed environment today compared with medical care as usual in the past.  During my last stint in a hospital I did not see well developed teams anywhere.  Most of the senior physicians who did a lot of the teaching and tended to view themselves as affiliated with residents had been replaced by hospitalists.  Entire teaching services had been replaced.  Non-medical management has left many medical institutions very arid places with few personnel and limited collegiality.  That is exactly the wrong environment for depressed and stressed physicians.   Training programs everywhere can help residents by making sure they build collegiality and that team factor in all of their rotations.  They need to provide highly motivated faculty who have the interests of trainees in mind as a priority.  The teams I am referring to here are teams of physicians, not teams that contain administrative staff telling physicians what to do.

The article most directly related to managed care hegemony was "Medical Necessity in Psychiatry: Whose Definition Is It Anyway? by Daniel Knoepflmacher, MD.  The title is of course purely rhetorical.  Like many things in medicine today medical necessity has nothing to do with medicine.  It is a pure business definition designed to give the appearance of legitimacy to what is a pure business driven decision.  The decisions are made by people with no appreciation of human biology or its complexity.  They are people who seem to think that a lot of meaningless business metrics somehow apply to the practice of medicine.  At the worst (and most probable) they are simply rationing to make a profit.  I would call them nerds but I really don't think that they are that smart.

In the article, Dr. Knoepflmacher makes that point.  There is not even a standard business definition of medical necessity.  Companies can basically say and do whatever they want.  He traces the history of the term and how various groups define it today.  Interestingly one of the largest managed care companies states that it is for payment purposes only.  He points out the overemphasis on acute or crisis care rather than professional guidelines or standards.  I would argue that in psychiatry, managed care companies do a very poor job of addressing acute care by using only a dangerousness metric.  The term cost effectiveness is incorporated into some of the definitions in the 1960s.  The acclaimed Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 lacks any definition of medical necessity or a more useful definition of medical appropriateness.  That may explain why this legislation has had negligible impact.  Dr. Knoepflmacher's thesis can be best summarized in the sentence:

"Without universal medical necessity criteria for mental health care, clinicians and their patients are saddled with a concept highly susceptible to abuse by insurers."

I would take it a step further.  The abuse has been institutionalized at this point.  Clinicians find themselves abused at every fork in the road.  Any time a psychiatrist refills a medication for a colleague or because the treatment setting has changed they are subjected to abusive prior authorization processes that are in place purely to harass physicians into giving up and patients to the point that they are paying out of pocket instead of using the insurance they have paid for.   In that case Congress is directly responsible for erecting two multibillion dollar industries and inserting them between the physician and their patient.  I would also propose a much better limit than arbitrary medical necessity criteria.  It should be apparent that any managed care company can get around legislation and rules that they lobbied to pass.  I propose that physicians recommend a course of treatment to patients and that they are totally removed from the payment process.  No more wasting time with insurance company employee-reviewers.  No more conflict of interest in favor of big business.  The physician recommends treatment.  The insurance company tells the patient if they will pay for it.  Other than civil action by the patient, the only oversight should be a panel of physicians carefully screened for conflict of interest at the state level to mediate disputes (sorry no insurance industry insiders).

Highlighting these four articles creates a portrait of what is wrong with the APA.  Like other professional organizations it has clearly bought into the pro-management zeitgeist that is generally sold by American businesses and government.  The general idea is that there are business managers that know more about what you do and can tell you what to do - irrespective of your professional training and experience.  That idea is a mile wide and an inch deep.  Anyone with middle school analytic skills should have come to the same conclusion as Dr. Knoepflmacher - about 20 years ago.  His article is there now as a necessary reminder that there is a much better way to do things.  Instead of affiliating with these outrageous business practices - they should be actively resisted at every level.  That should include the practice and training environments.  There is nothing worse for physicians and patients than wringing the humanity out of medical practice.

And there is nobody better at doing that than current healthcare business managers.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Attributions:  The graphic is all me.  It is supposed to represent a progressive overlap by government and business interests with the profession.  There are psychiatrists that work in the overlap areas and some who work just in the black and gray zones.  The field is still plodding along as though it is an autonomous profession.  


  1. Not to mention the incessant articles conceptualizing burnout as an Axis I disease rather than an Axis 4 problem.

  2. The AMA, as far as I can tell, is just as bad or worse at protecting the interests of both physicians and their patients as the APA. The metrics suggested for Medicare to assess "merit-based" payment reforms are anything but merit-based, and will have the effect on many doctors of causing them to only take the cases with the best prognosis so they can look good. What has either organization done to counter this bull in the minds of the public? I'll tell you. Not one damned thing.

    1. Agree completely - the entire "evidence-basis" for ACOs and the elaborate rationing scheme in place by the federal government is not valid. The other issue is the continuous kowtowing to administrators and managers by an endless stream of opinion and perspective pieces on "reform" and the next great idea in management and administration in some of our top journals. It not only contradicts science and evidence based medicine but it also mimics the real life process of working in these places and being subjected to the next great idea by whoever your not-so-bright administrator is.

      I hope to post a piece on a researcher who I think has done the most to totally debunk ACOs and what supposedly supports them.

      And let's get blogging out of medical journals and get back to the facts.

    2. With the money I have saved in thirty years of not belonging to AMA or APA or their local chapters, basically paid for my last two cars (bought 12 years apart, which btw is how you really leave a small footprint). I have never regretted giving them the heave ho after residency. AMA rolled over on Obamacare and APA is an ineffective ceremonial guild.

      Also getting out of the bubble has made me more objective and critical in a good way.

  3. In "Changing the Face of American Psychiatry," Mel Sabshin, Medical Director of the APA wrote of the lead up to the DSM-III, "How could a professional organization engineer a scientific revolution that changed its core? According to conventional wisdom, organizations respond; they do not initiate." He was explaining why the APA took control in those days. Most still think that was a correct move.

    But after that, the APA never let go of that power. Rather than going back to being responsive to the membership, they continued to tell, rather than ask. I dropped out early around the very issues George is talking about now. The current APA and its collaboration with "Collaborative Care" is an example of of an organization participating in its own demise.

    1. Agree completely on the collaborative care issue, especially since the "health care reform" is an administrative/managerial house of cards. There is absolutely no evidence for the way that physicians and psychiatrists are managed these days. There is no reason for the APA or the AMA to go along with anything.

      I gave it my best effort in trying the get the point across as a district branch president, but physicians in general and psychiatrists in particular never want to rock the boat - especially if even a small part of the membership might be alienated.

      In that case, that small minority prevents the kind of assertiveness and initiatives that would benefit the majority of front line clinicians and their patients.

      Instead of saying the system of mental health care is thoroughly dilapidated and needs to be run by psychiatrists who know what they are doing - we are playing along with strategies that marginalize psychiatry. That will kill psychiatry as we know it - replaced by a PHQ-9 and a "prescriber".

  4. Collabo-Care renders doctors to the role of an algorithm and as such, we are guaranteed in time to be replaced by software that will have a lower error rate by an ACO model.

    The Disney IT workers who were forced to train their own replacements or lose their pension at least had the dignity and self-awareness to be upset about it. APA leadership are lemmings in cheerleading costumes. And some of us keep paying them to do it.

  5. BTW the Oquendo article is a perfect illustration of academic-in-power seemingly oblivious to the increasing impotence of the hoi polloi. That is, maximum responsibility and minimal control. There's nothing to wonder about, physicians have been talking about it for decades. PHQ-9s? If you want to focus on acronyms, start with EHRs and ACOs and MOCs. Alcohol abuse? In some cases, but that doesn't explain the larger trend. I'm not confused about the larger metadiagnosis at all and it lies firmly on Axis 4.