Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Why Finger-Pointing and Self Flagellation Don't Work

This post is an effort to address some of the rhetoric that is focused on psychiatrists by other psychiatrists. It can be traced back to some of the replies posted here on this blog. But the real impetus today is a thread on Twitter. Twitter is an interesting format for studying dynamics during discussions. It has significant limitations but some of the highlights are interesting. The thread of interest started out as an exchange between myself and another clinical psychiatrist on the issue of the intensive treatment of patients with psychotic disorders specifically early intervention. My responses noted below.
What followed was a fairly rapid deterioration in this exchange. There were the usual comments about how diagnoses are really “labels” and wouldn’t it be nice if we had a different name for the label. From there things progressed to talk about stigma and how it was a significant problem that we need to address. There was also the question about the “dark past” of psychiatry and how there needs to be some kind of atonement for that. I made the basic point that I don’t come from a dark past of psychiatry and there are more positive ways to proceed. From there, one of the posters who was a psychiatrist put up references to what he meant about a “dark past”.  His references were both highly problematic. For example, in the first reference he discusses drapetomania as one of the dark chapters in psychiatry without realizing that the term has nothing to do with psychiatrists. The term is straight out of the anti-psychiatry playbook.  In a second reference (1) there is a chapter from the Schizophrenia Bulletin on the political abuses of psychiatry. There are no references to the political abuses psychiatry in the United States. I might be concerned if I was practicing psychiatry in Russia or China.  It seems that if more countries had the patient safety and civil rights safeguards in place like the United States has - the political abuse of psychiatry would be far less likely.  The arguments about atoning for the “dark past” on the basis of the provided references appear to not apply to my statement about not needing to atone for anything.

As a person who understands rhetoric and who knows psychiatry, there are plenty of historical problems that can be characterized as problematic. That is true of any medical specialty. What is difficult to understand is why a person who is practicing psychiatry is criticizing the field using anti-psychiatry rhetoric. I criticize the drapetomania reference in this post that was written by a psychiatrist defining the field of critical psychiatry (par 10).  I will attempt to summarize the arguments and illustrate my approach.

1. Everyone is biased including psychiatrists- 

My position has always been that psychiatrists receive more extensive training in recognizing and eliminating bias than anyone. That is not a popular position to take in today’s political climate where the fastest way to win an argument is to suggest than someone has an unconscious bias that only you can recognize. The overwhelming evidence that what I am saying is true is basically the training of current and previous generations of psychiatrists. Psychiatrists learn how to talk to people from all backgrounds and cultures. They learn how to communicate with people who have difficulty communicating with other doctors or even their family members. They are trained in aspects of the interpersonal relationship that allow them to analyze that relationship both diagnostically and from a therapeutic standpoint. Beyond that it should be very clear that this communication process happens every day and multiple times a day. Psychiatrists are consulted for difficult analyze problems and they make medical diagnoses - in addition to psychiatric diagnoses - based on these communication techniques.  This is the the work of psychiatry and everybody I know in the field is there because they know it and they are interested in it.

2. Psychiatrists are biased against patients with particular diagnoses-

 One of the concerns that came up was that there are certain diagnoses specifically personality disorders that psychiatrists would prefer not to treat. In clinical practice no matter what your specialty, one of the professional goals is to find a certain niche. I preferred to treat patients who were very ill and many of them had significant personality disorders. There are different approaches to personality disorders and treatment can occur without using that diagnosis as long as there is a specific problem list. The other factor is the number of resources necessary to provide treatment. It is common these days for people to be referred for dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) whether they have the requisite diagnosis or not. That explanation will not suffice for people who believe that personality disorder diagnoses are inappropriate labels that should be eliminated and that they have a problem that has no specific treatment. The reality is that current treatments work and that is what psychiatrists are focused on.

I have had other physicians tell me that they wanted to go into psychiatry, but they experienced intense emotional reactions when talking with people who had certain diagnoses. That could be a specific personality disorder diagnosis or extreme affects associated with other conditions. It highlights the fact that psychiatrists want to be able to communicate with people that others avoid and they are successful at doing so.

3. Psychiatrists should listen to people who are critical or in some cases abusive because there needs to be an “atonement” with the past-

I got a reaction from some people because of my matter-of-fact statement that there is nothing for me to atone for. Interestingly, most of the psychiatrists holding this opinion are all from the United Kingdom. Irrelevant rhetoric aside, additional analysis might be useful. The first has to do with the way the criticism is presented. In a public forum it is common for people to attack psychiatrists and suggest that they are “arrogant” because they refuse to listen to a long list of complaints. At one point, a reference was made to problematic treatment in some institution. The poster referred to the fact that a patient had died from a bowel obstruction and alluded to gross mistreatment. The problem with that type of argument is - were psychiatrists involved? What were the specifics? Where are the authorities?

Whenever people have anonymously complained about psychiatrists and mistreatment I typically ask them why they have not filed a complaint with regulatory authorities. At least I used to do that until I realized they really don’t want an answer or solution. They just want to make psychiatrists look bad. I realize that I was dealing with a lot of people from the UK, but let me discuss how things go in the United States. There are federal and state regulations on the practice of medicine. The ultimate authority and whether a physician is disciplined up to and including loss of license is the state medical board. In the state where I practice, any complaint is thoroughly investigated. That means the complaint does not have to be accurate or even coherent. If any complaint is filed against a physician, the medical board contacts them and requests all of the relevant records and a response from that physician within two weeks. A failure to respond results in disciplinary measures that may include loss of license and the ability to practice medicine. There are independent entities that report on how many physicians are disciplined in every state and encourages people to file complaints. They have rating systems that suggest whether or not enough complaints are filed against physicians. That is a very low threshold for dealing with complaints about physicians.

All physicians must apply for a new medical license every year. On that medical license physicians must attest to the fact that they do not have any substance use problems, medical problems that impair their ability to practice, and have not committed any crimes. They also have to attest that they are not under investigation by any hospital, clinic, professional organization or the board of medical practice. All controlled substance prescriptions are tracked by physician and patient. In the state where I work there is also an Ombudsman who is located in the Governor’s office and is charged with investigating complaints against the vulnerable adults. Vulnerable adults by definition include people with mental disorders, addictions, and developmental disabilities. An Ombudsman investigation is totally independent from the medical board.

I can’t say what happens in the UK, but patient safety is a priority in the US rather than the reputation of any doctor. With all the safeguards in place,  I don’t know why anyone would post information on social media about being injured or abused by any physician without going through this process.

Since most physicians in the US are employees, that is another area of oversight. Practically all medical organizations solicit physician ratings from patients being seen and aggregate those ratings around each physician. They are used to “incentivize” physicians to get more optimal ratings. They are also used to intimidate physicians into doing what their administrators want them to do. Any significant complaint from a patient or a fellow healthcare professional would result in a physician needing to meet with an administrator.  That internal employer investigation must be reported to the medical board and credentialing agencies.

In the extreme, malpractice litigation is another source of oversight but there is an admittedly a mixed agenda. Malpractice litigation occurs both in the United States and the UK, suggesting to me that with some of the extreme scenarios described in social media this litigation would be an obvious approach.

These levels of physician oversight, suggests that the complaints leveled against psychiatrists in social media have either not been brought to the responsible authorities or they don’t exist. These processes also suggest that there is no room for a “dark” present at least not without discipline or loss of license. Physicians have a fiduciary responsibility to their patients and very clear accountability. Specific responsibility is a much clearer way to approach the problem than suggesting that everyone atone for some vague injustices.

 4. There are no unique psychiatrists and you don't have to be unique to do good work –

 The final bit of rhetoric that I encountered was in the form of a hashtag #NotAllPsychiatrists. The discussant in this case was another psychiatrist from the UK who suggested that using that hashtag as an argument to counter the blanket condemnation of psychiatrists “gets us nowhere”. He was suggesting that psychiatrists should listen to all possible complaints and that by using this hashtag “it suggests we are not interested in listening”.  Unless you believe that most or all psychiatrists harm patients this is an argument based on a false premise.  The hashtag itself is as rhetorical as well as the statement that all complaints should be listened to by all psychiatrists.  Each psychiatrist listens to  the patient sitting directly in front of them. They have responsibility to that person.  The psychiatrists I know are preoccupied with not making mistakes and they generally do a good job of that.   A more appropriate hashtag to counter the blanket condemnations might be #PracticallyNoPsychiatrists.

This idea is not productive in other ways.  Direct observation of my colleagues suggests that we are all uniformly trained and the idea that one psychiatrist is “better” than another is a convenient illusion subject to context. I have seen more than one mistake made when a psychiatrist was blamed for something beyond their control and their colleagues were not supportive. That seems to be the dynamic operating here when discussions among colleagues suddenly become forums for complaints against psychiatrists. It is also a convenient way to just win an argument. In other words, there is no good reason for a psychiatrist to not want to listen to complaints about the profession in a conversation that started as a professional discussion about psychiatry. Case closed!

This is some of the rhetoric used against psychiatrists in social media and unfortunately much of the finger-pointing and self-flagellation is from psychiatrists themselves. I pointed out clear reasons why it is unnecessary. There are currently plenty of more functional avenues for complaints against physicians and they should be utilized.

And no psychiatrist out there should be suggesting that they have a superior position when it comes to caring for patients or endorsing blanket criticism of the field.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:   van Voren R. Political abuse of psychiatry--an historical overview. Schizophr Bull. 2010 Jan;36(1):33-5. doi: 10.1093/schbul/sbp119. Epub 2009 Nov 5. PubMed PMID: 19892821


One of the qualifiers for this post is that psychiatric practice is being compared between the US and the UK.  Reading literature written by psychiatrists from the UK for decades I can't imagine the practice there is much different.

Graphic Credit:

The "words have power" graphic is from Shutterstock per their standard user agreement.  The artist is gerasimov_foto_174.  I thought it was very appropo for this post because many of the intense critics and in many cases maligners of psychiatry have power as their predominate focus. Most psychiatrists don't see the world that way and in fact realize that in most cases we are lucky to be able to secure the most appropriate treatment for our patients.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Do Anti -Torture Arguments Apply To Some Utilization Review Decisions?

In a previous post on psychiatry and torture, I pointed out the American Psychiatric Association's official position paper on torture.  It states unequivocally that psychiatrists should not be involved in  torture and describes the premises for that argument.  As any reader of this blog knows, I have described the impact of managed care on psychiatry including the fact that managed care has had a disproportionate effect on the field probably because of widespread biases against psychiatry, psychiatrists, and patients with psychiatric disorders and addictions.  Some would cite the subjective nature of the field, but the abuses I have seen occur in areas where  there is limited subjectivity such as inpatient and treatment settings where there are unequivocal and severe disorders.  Obvious examples would be people with psychotic disorders who are engaged in unsafe activities due to delusions and/or hallucinations or a person compulsively drinking 1.75 liters of vodka per day despite having numerous auto accidents and nearly freezing to death because of intoxication.  Every psychiatrist I know is aware of cases where these people have been denied care by an insurance company based on an arbitrary decision made by a remote reviewer who has no responsibility to the patient in question.  Although many of these patients are oblivious to their plight and would be content to proceed with no treatment, many are highly distressed.  They are distressed because they know that proceeding with no treatment places them at risk on several fronts and the basic act of being denied coverage causes them a great deal of distress.

That lead me to the thought: "Is this distress the equivalent of torture?"  As always that depends on the definition.  Post 911, the United States has used various definitions of torture including some that rationalize actual physical blows to a person as not constituting torture.  Timelines of various Department of Justice memos with these interpretations are available and I will not get into them here.   There are obvious problems with not calling a coercive beating torture.  A more widely accepted definition is available from the United Nations:

1:  For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

In this case, torture is defined as potentially mental suffering with no physical component.  Since the UN is dealing with torture inflicted by states there is the expected implication of states in the process and the cases of lawful imposition of pain and suffering inflicted by states.  The definition is also limited to obtaining information that a person wants to keep undisclosed or coercing them to do something they do not want to do.  A more general dictionary definition from Webster's would be:

To afflict with severe pain of body or mind.

Part of the convenience to businesses denying psychiatric care is the stereotype that these are just minor medical conditions, that treatment is elective, or that treatment does not meet some arbitrary business criteria like "failing outpatient treatment first" or "we don't do medical detox in a hospital".  The pain involved with mental illness is an abstract concept to anyone who has not experienced it or who has not be involved in trying to treat it.  I don't think it has been studied.  You won't see anyone asking the question:

How painful was it to learn that your insurance company would not fund for the treatment of your mental illness or substance abuse problem and realize that you would be losing your home, spouse, children, job, etc?

Professionals treating the patients in question also avoid the issue of psychic pain.  It can be more easily dealt with as the expected anxiety or depression of an adjustment disorder rather than unnecessary suffering inflicted by a third party.  Some professionals will address it as grief from the expected losses.  But most often it is just glossed over as business as usual. The legal system has already indemnified managed care systems from any liability for decisions that lead to injury removing them further from the consciousness of patients, their families and the providers in question.  The physicians involved are conflicted - they know they are powerless given the legal landscape and further they don't want to make any waves with the companies who might be paying them.  We have culturally removed one of the most toxic factors in our health care system - the denial of care from consideration.

Like all psychiatrists, I have had to pick up the pieces when the proposed treatment plan is denied and all of the secondary problems come into play.  Suddenly I am talking with a person who not only has a severe psychiatric problem and/or addiction, but they are now homeless or without a job or a family.  It is the worst care scenario from the perspective of comprehensive care and it is up to me and my colleagues to piece together a suboptimal plan.   The outcomes of those suboptimal plans are rarely very good.  The best that I usually hope for is that they can be safe for a long enough period of time to find other resources to deal with their chronic mental illness or addiction.  In some cases the expected worst case scenario occurs and if the patient is lucky they are readmitted and there is another chance to try to obtain funding from their managed care company.  There is a good chance the proposed plan will be refused again.

At what point is the human suffering involved in this sequence of events recognized?  At what point does a change in the system need to occur.  Steven Sharfstein, MD made this decision when he was the President of the APA and he banned the participation of psychiatrists in any step of the interrogations occurring in the mid 1990s to this date.  Is that a step that psychiatry should consider in managed care settings?  Should we eliminate psychiatrists from sitting in a remote office and reading notes about the care of one of these severely ill patients and making a decision that favors the insurance company that they work for?  Psychiatric professional societies have adapted to the cultural blindness of the culpability of insurance companies when they legitimize medical decisions by making sure that some psychiatrists are in these reviewer positions.  I guess  the thinking was that they could suspend their loyalty to their employer to make decisions in the best interests of patients and the profession.  History has clearly showed that things don't work that way.  I have had some reviewers tell me that their decisions were based on a set number of days irrespective of anything I would tell them about illness severity or complications.

I can understand the obvious counterargument to my position that the denial of care is a form of torture.  It can be argued that the patient is not a passive player and that they have a "choice" about whether they continue to have severe symptoms, continue to use drugs and alcohol, or continue to harm themselves.  The idea that all of these problems are based on conscious voluntary choices remains an unrealistic business approach to mental illnesses and addictions and not reality.  There is also the business as usual argument.  That is - this is the way we have done things for the past 30 years with the help of politicians even though it does not contain costs and it provides poor quality care.  It that really enough justification for creating more stress on already distressed patients?

At what point do we all acknowledge that denied psychiatric care results in more mental pain and suffering and takes psychiatrists out of decisions that are in their patients best interest?

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Graphics Credit:

Graphic is downloaded from Shutterstock per their standard agreement.  It is entitled "Depressed man in a tunnel" by the artist hikron.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Epistemic Injustice Is Misapplied to Psychiatry

Some of the greatest minds in psychiatry have emphasized the importance of philosophy in the field and done some excellent work in that area. Unfortunately philosophy can also be used to attack the field and when it is, some of that work is not very well done. Since I’ve been writing this blog there have been a couple of examples. The first was the argument that the DSM-5 was a “blueprint for living”. My counterargument is available at this link and you can read the subsequent dialogue. It should be evident from my argument that the DSM-5 is the farthest thing from the blueprint for living that a psychiatrist could imagine. The political context for that article in the New York Times was the supposed controversy about the DSM-5. It was being portrayed in the media as almost apocalyptic and this opinion piece fit right in.  I always viewed the DSM-5 as the non-event that it proved to be.

The second couple of articles focused on critical psychiatry. One was an opinion piece about critical psychiatry and the second was a summary of critical psychiatry written by a couple of critical psychiatrists. In the philosophy literature as it applies to psychiatry there is always a lot of hedging around the issue of whether philosophical critics are anti-psychiatrists or something else. Some authors for example refer to them as skeptics. I have no problem with the school that sees them as anti-psychiatrists and made the argument that if critical psychiatrists based their criticism on antipsychiatry philosophers they are in fact anti-psychiatrists.

The latest philosophical criticism of psychiatry is an opinion piece (1) called “Epistemic injustice in psychiatry.” It is written by an author who has a doctorate in philosophy and is a psychiatrist and two academic philosophers. Their main thesis is that epistemic injustice occurs to a number of people based on biases against them and this prejudice undermines their credibility in that context.  In the case of medical treatment, that means the patient is not taken seriously and their treatment plan would be more unilateral on the part of the provider rather than collaborative and seriously considering their input. But I don’t want to minimize the authors definition and so I am including it at this point below:

“Epistemic injustice is harm done to a person in her capacity as an epistemic subject (a knower, a reasoner, a questioner) by undermining her capacity to engage in epistemic practices such as giving knowledge to others (testifying) or making sense of one’s experience (interpreting). It typically arises when a hearer does not take the statements of the speaker as seriously as they deserve to be taken.

They cite racism and sexism as good examples where prejudical stereotypes lead to the subjects information being discounted. They build on this idea and suggest that people with mental illness are subjected to similar biases. From there they extrapolate and say that physicians and psychiatrists in particular make these same biased assessments and discount what patients say to them. They acknowledge that there are some circumstances where the credibility the patient may be questioned. They also suggest that this epistemic injustice is more likely to happen with psychiatric patients than other patients with physical illnesses. They suggest this has a detrimental effect on psychiatric patients, funding psychiatric services, and public perception.

They describe three examples of “epistemic injustice in psychiatry”. In all three cases the patients were put on acute psychiatric holds. In the first case a man claimed to be related to a Soviet leader and that was seen as delusional when it was true. In the second case a woman had cultural beliefs and practices that were misinterpreted as delusions. In the third case the patient had chronic suicidal thinking and visited the same cliff numerous times. He was admitted on hold when he was at the cliff for an hour and the decision was eventually made to treat him as a chronic high-risk patient on a voluntary basis. In all three cases the patients were released from the hospital by the civil commitment authority.

There are several problems with these vignettes and the inferences. The first is that the patients are being held on legal basis and not because of a psychiatric diagnosis. At least that is what happens in the United States. In other words, people cannot be held on the basis of a diagnosis they also have to present an imminent danger to themselves or others. It is a contested legal process and that in itself blurs the diagnosis and inhibits communication. The vignettes also seem to say that people are never adequately assessed based on their history and released even before the legal hold is released. As an acute care psychiatrist I have had to assess and release thousands of people when we determined that the history they gave us was accurate. In other words we believed them and released them. Of all the people I assessed and treated I am not aware of anyone who was released by a court because I made in an inaccurate assessment by not listening to the patient.

The authors move on to talk about contributory factors for epistemic injustice.  They discuss a number of archaic stereotypes (for a psychiatrist) of people with mental illness such as believing substance use users have a “lack of willpower” and that they are responsible for their own particular problems. I have never really met a psychiatrist with these beliefs and doubt that people with those beliefs go into psychiatry. I have certainly met other medical specialists with these beliefs and in fact argue with them regularly about that. The authors do have a rare point when they point out that negative stereotypes and stigma lead voters and politicians to underfund treatment for mental illness but that has nothing to do with the way psychiatrists communicate with their patients.

They discuss the topic of hard versus soft evidence. They use this to develop the argument that health professionals have epistemic power because “only they have access to this evidence and have the training to interpret it”. They really stretch to come up with the statement that some psychiatrists think of their patients as "objects of epistemic inquiry" rather than collaborators. I wonder if the authors are familiar with the psychiatric concept of therapeutic alliance. In the therapeutic alliance the psychiatrist and the patient are active collaborators and both the psychiatrist and the patient focus on solving problems that the patient identifies. That is an active process that as far as I know is taught to all psychiatrists. It wouldn’t work if a psychiatrist was looking at the patient as an object of inquiry.

The third contributor to epistemic injustice is negative stereotypes. The common stereotype mentioned by the authors is that “people with a mental illness are responsible for their condition”. I don’t think any psychiatrists think this way but at the end of this section the authors go back to making an argument about how psychiatric services are inadequately funded because the public and politicians maintain these negative stereotypes. So in the end two of the three contributory factors have more to do with the public’s lack of knowledge about psychiatric disorders than how psychiatrists function.

They discuss dementia and schizophrenia as conditions where the patient’s input may be minimized because of cognitive factors or their psychiatric status. The main stereotypes mentioned are the dangerousness stereotype with schizophrenia and the hopeless case stereotype with dementia. It is very difficult to understand how either of these descriptions support their main argument. Psychiatrists are trained to weigh what the patient is telling them and whether or not it might be plausible. Compared to practically all people - psychiatrists should have the best framework for what might or might not be plausible in the area of human behavior.  I can recall being interrupted during team meetings with news that one of my patients had communicated some behavior that the staff in the room were discounting as implausible and I suppose that is congruent with the authors’ argument. Those behaviors range from self reports of severe self endangering behavior to behaviors with a high likelihood of aggression. In most cases I considered the patient report to be accurate.  I had no doubt that a very low frequency behavior had occurred based on that patient’s history and in those cases it was generally corroborated.

The authors do not elaborate on the case where the patient's statements are uncritically accepted by the treating physician.  That is a likely cause of overprescribing and unnecessary testing.   

The entire first section of the paper does not seem to reflect modern psychiatric practice. I just put up a post on about 50 different factors that can be discussed with the patient at the end of the interview and a few real life examples of what is discussed. All treatment planning is based on what the patient says in that interview. The authors examples are cases where psychiatry and psychiatric assessment is secondary to legal considerations and all the impaired communication that involves. So there appears to be no epistemic injustice at the level of psychiatrist talking to patients in an outpatient setting.  The only exception would be a psychiatrist with insufficient expertise or one under severe constraints.  Those constraints can include a lack of time with the patient and unrealistic productivity and paperwork demands by the bureaucracy. 

The authors move on to discuss ways to overcome epistemic injustice. They suggest changing training to emphasize the subjective perspective of patients. I don’t understand that argument because the psychiatric evaluation should be focused entirely on the subjective perspective of patients. If the psychiatrist has any technical expertise at all, empathy is used to communicate that the psychiatrist knows what the patient is going through. The best description of empathy comes from British psychiatry as follows:

“Empathy is achieved by precise, insightful, persistent and knowledgeable questioning until the doctor is able to give an account of the patient’s subjective experience that the patient recognizes as his own.” (2)

That hardly seems like an exercise in disbelieving or ignoring what the patient has to say. Further psychiatric assessment should be focused on the entire conscious state of the patient rather than just what they have to say. Psychiatrists should be adept at diagnosing and treating patients who are unconscious and comatose, delirious, cognitively impaired, and experiencing severe psychiatric symptoms. A psychiatric assessment is more than believing what is said. I have frequently been in the position of having to explain to the patient what was happening to them and helping them make sense of their current experience. That is a singular focus on the patient’s subjective state when they are confused and unable to describe it.

The authors suggest multidisciplinary teams with a focus on the emotional aspects of care. I don’t know if that happens in England but in the United States I had team meetings every day for 22 years. The emotional aspect of care including interpersonal dynamics with patients and among the staff was routinely discussed in those meetings.

The authors suggest that medical students should be “taught to believe what psychiatric patients tell them unless there is a good reason not to do so”. My hope would be that medical students are able to see how attending physicians approach evaluations and treat psychiatric patients much differently than other physicians. The main factors that lead to that different approach include therapeutic neutrality, a lack of bias toward people with severe psychiatric disorders and addictions, and an ability to talk to all people with those problems. There is a more technical point that might not be as evident and that is psychiatrists are the only physicians who are systematically trained to understand and analyze their reactions to the patient and what that might mean. That is what psychiatrists do and why they are consulted by other physicians and by everyone else when problems are significant.

A much better approach is to go after institutional countertransference or the collective emotional and interpersonal reactions that can be seen institution wide based on psychiatric and addiction diagnoses. This is the single most important factor in being able to provide quality care to people with these conditions. A negative institutional countertransference toward these patients is evident in most hospitals and clinics where I have worked.  Only one person - the director of an emergency medicine program was interested in addressing it and had me speak as a consultant at a Grand Rounds on the subject. These negative attitudes are driven to an extent by stereotypes but also by the neglectful way society and political systems treat these people. They have been cast as a burden on the medical system, always uncooperative, people who deserve minimal if any treatment, and their treatment resources are cut to the bone. Psychiatrists working in these settings and promoting a model of therapeutic neutrality facilitating appropriate care is one of the best solutions - but more cooperation outside of the psychiatric community is needed.

In summary, epistemic injustice appears to be another philosophical concept that is misapplied to psychiatry.   There is no doubt that people can be misdiagnosed. There is no doubt that things don’t always go well. There is a clear reason for that and that is everyone coming to see a psychiatrist has a unique conscious state. There is no catalog of every unique conscious state. The psychiatrist's job is to understand that unique conscious state and it happens through direct communication with that person.  That direct communication can happen only if the psychiatrist is an unbiased listener.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1: Crichton P, Carel H, Kidd IJ. Epistemic injustice in psychiatry. BJPsych Bull.  2017 Apr;41(2):65-70. doi: 10.1192/pb.bp.115.050682. PubMed PMID: 28400962;

2: Sims A. Symptoms in the Mind. Elsevier Limited; London; 2003; p 3.

Graphic Credit:

The above photo was downloaded from Shutterstock per their standard user agreement.  The title is
Joshua Trees in Mojave Desert, California by Dean Stanisavljevic.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Preliminary Look At Structured Treatment Planning

I recently posted an early view of an approach to look at the treatment planning discussion that occurs at the end of a psychiatric interview. I thought that the next step would be to see if this approach works in the real world.  My current real world involves doing 1 hour evaluations with anywhere from 15-20 minutes of that time focused on a discussion of the treatment plan and that does include the option of no psychiatric treatment and in many cases other suggested treatments.  For example, some people seek treatment for acute stressors including grief that generally resolve spontaneously or are more adequately treated by individual or group counseling.  In most treatment settings where there is a triage system, these people are frequently screened out and do not see psychiatrists. That consideration directly applies to the treatment planning discussion because it affects the discussion of diagnosis, medical complications, and suggested treatments.

The graphic above shows the results of 10 interviews and the distribution of what was discussed (indicated by the orange cells) varies with individuals and general headings. The graphic is more readable if you click on it and zoom.  For example there were 13 bullet points that were covered in all 10 discussions and those points have to do with a diagnosis and specific treatments are expected.   Some topics were less frequently discussed and that generally means there were less applicable or the discussion time was reduced by a more lengthy diagnostic interview.  I have found over the years that the length of an interview depends on getting the necessary transfer of information that can lead to a working diagnosis so that treatment planning can be started.  The information necessary can be compromised by a number of factors including the patient's emotional state, their ability to describe a history with enough detail, the ability to be relatively concise, and the ability of the physician to communicate based on eliciting the necessary information and empathic listening.  That can vary significantly from physician-patient dyad to dyad.

In terms of coverage of all 50 bullet points, 30-58% of them were covered in the discussions with patients.  I don't think there is an ideal number.  The people I talked with all have unique needs and there is no cookie cutter approach to either the diagnostic process of treatment planning.  In some cases my discussion may run a little over the 15-20 minutes but that is rare.  I have received some feedback that this seems like an ivory tower approach that can only be used by psychiatrists who have unlimited time with patients. All of these interviews were conducted the same way I have interviewed and talked with people for the past 30 years.  The interview was not modified in any way.  This is not research (yet) it is real world experience.

I am in the process of modifying the form based on suggestions from other psychiatrists so this is not the final version.  At some point I think it would be useful to consider research using this kind of format to document that points covered by setting, diagnosis, and time constraints.  A basic skill that all psychiatrists need is knowing when to depart from the original reason for consultation to a more urgent need - like the need for assessing an acute medical problems, a medical problem that might represent the cause of the psychiatric presentation, or a complication of treatment.

For now, I think it works as good evidence that psychiatry is not as easy as it has been depicted.  The original depiction was by the federal government when it suggested the structure of psychiatric evaluations and treatment were not like the rest of medicine.  There were separate codes and reimbursement for psychiatric treatment that did not take into account even one section of the above template.  The adaptation to that government and insurance company practice has been to reduce discussions to the amount of time congruent with the devaluation of the cognitive process. That also led to clinics scheduling patients too close together and for briefer appointments.  There is a lower limit to the time necessary to assess and treat patients. I don't think anyone who is doing new evaluations every 20 minutes while they are talking to patients and checking off templates in the electronic health record is going to be having lengthy treatment planning discussions. This form suggests that psychiatrists need time to do what they were trained to do.

The form when it is completed with provide not only a good estimate of what was discussed with the patient but will also provide guidance on what is relevant to document. 

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


Friday, July 12, 2019

2000 Words About the Last Ten Minutes of a Psychiatric Evaluation

I do psychiatric interviews all week long. At this point I’ve been doing it for over three decades. I am always interested in improving the process. I came up with this idea recently and wish I had thought about it many years ago. My standard initial interviews are anywhere from 45 minutes to 60 minutes long and that includes a lot of information transfer. The actual amount of information transferred and whether it can be used come up with formulation and diagnosis is always an unknown variable. There are people who can come in and succinctly produce that information in 30 minutes or less. Other people will take several hours. At the end of every interview, I have to dictate a report that contains fairly standardized sections including a diagnosis and treatment plan.

When physicians are trained there is an implicit understanding that they will be able to adhere to a specific protocol and come up with a diagnosis and treatment plan. In the real-world things are never that linear. In inpatient psychiatry, the patient may not be able to produce a coherent history or any history at all if they are severely ill and the diagnosis needs to be pieced together by collateral information and the medical and behavioral presentation. In outpatient clinics, the format is much different. It is still possible to interview a patient who communicates low information content but it is much more likely that patients describe what is necessary for diagnosis and treatment. One of the main problems is the discussion at the end of the assessment. It is typically truncated by time constraints. Many patients leave the assessment and realize they should have mentioned specific concerns or asked more questions.  I often have people tell me that they are drawing a blank in the interview and want to know if they can call me if they have additional questions. I reassure them that they can.

These brief observations highlight the need for adequate time and structure following the diagnostic interview to facilitate the discussion and make sure that the patient can send and receive the communication that is both necessary and what they want beyond that. I came up with the structure over the past two weeks and I think is a good starting point. I also refer interested readers to the only post on this blog that was not made by me. It was written by Cedric Skillon, MD one of my psychiatric colleagues because I observed his superior treatment planning in all of his notes that I encountered.

This exercise assumes that any psychiatrist reading this as adequate time to do their work. I don’t think psychiatry can be reduced to a checklist and I don’t think it can be done in a short period of time. I realize that there are psychiatrists reading this who may have evaluations scheduled back to back in the morning and 15-minute appointments scheduled back to back all afternoon. We all know how that schedule gets accommodated and the outcomes are not good. What typically happens is there is very little emphasis on getting to know and understand patients and little emphasis on communicating with them about their problem. I also understand that the people who really control all psychiatrist practice these days don’t really care about quality treatment. The emphasis here is always on quality and the obvious fact that quality work is not easy and it takes time.

What follows is my proposed outline for the patient discussion. I think that in even moderately complex cases at least 25% of the allotted time should be for this discussion. I have not done it yet but I hope to hand an outline to the patient in order to facilitate discussion. I’m very interested in whether their psychiatrist have used this technique and also speculation on why it may or may not be a good idea.

1.  A discussion of the diagnosis and/or formulation

Of the people I talk with very few seem interested in the specific diagnosis. It does happen, and when it does, I think it is important to cover most likely diagnosis and complicating factors. For example, when seeing a patient to has been drinking excessively for 20 years and gives a history of anxiety and depression prior to the onset of that alcohol use and current anxiety and depression can there be a valid anxiety or depression diagnosis given the intervening alcohol use. This is a basic level of complexity that psychiatrists encounter. In covering the diagnosis, I will typically talk about a most likely diagnosis as well as the provisional or working diagnosis and my recommendations for clarifying the diagnosis. In some cases, people are interested in whether or not they have a severe psychiatric disorder. I encounter a lot of people at the end of the initial interview who asked me “So am I nuts/crazy Doc?” Some people have a specific diagnosis in mind that they either want or don’t want and I give them my best assessment. Some people have studied diagnostic features online or in the DSM and use that jargon during my interview. They may or may not be right.

I think a formulation is always necessary in addition to a psychiatric diagnosis. I was first impressed with rapid formulations done in brief psychodynamic psychotherapy. I also found several courses given at the annual APA conference in diagnostic formulations to be useful. The patient may have their own formulation or one that they worked on with the therapist that I would typically discuss in the original interview. I don’t think the formulation discussion has to be excessive or detailed and it may complement the diagnostic assessment. As example the case of the diagnosis of major depression, it is reasonable to discuss the interpersonal elements relevant to the depression as well as psychosocial stressors.

2.  A discussion of a no treatment option

A no treatment option should be explicit. It should be discussed as part of the informed consent process. The potential risks and benefits of no treatment should be discussed but in many cases no treatment is a viable option for people. The case that always comes to my mind is the person who consulted with me decades ago after receiving years long psychoanalytic treatment who wanted to know if he should find a new therapist and continue. After reviewing course of therapy and how his anxiety had improved over the years, he was very relieved to hear from me that he probably did not need to continue psychoanalysis. He had formally terminated with a psychoanalyst and no further treatment was recommended but he wanted a second opinion from a psychiatrist. Other people have mild anxiety and depression but are still functional and they had concerns about both medication and psychotherapy. With psychotherapy - the time, financial commitment, and past therapy experience are generally the determining factors. With medication the main concern is side effects and typically concerns about taking any medication. I commonly hear “Doc - I don’t like to take any medication, not even aspirin.” I think it is possible to discuss no treatment in a number of scenarios as well as the contingencies. The common contingency might be returning for reassessment if symptoms worsen or there are other complications.

3.  A discussion of potential medical treatments and medical concerns – especially those that may affect treatment

Outpatient psychiatrists are generally seeing patients after all the smoke has cleared. If they have access to an electronic health record (EHR) there are often laboratory results, ECGs, and imaging results and reports that the patient may or may not be aware of. After taking a complete medical history and review of systems I generally ask the patient if they had any questions about recent medical procedures or results and we have a discussion at that time.

The medical treatment of the identified disorder is reviewed. There are often several approaches to the problem and when I discuss all those approaches patients generally want my recommendation. I provide them with that, the necessary prescribing literature, and both short and long-term plans. I also talk about rare but serious complications of psychiatric pharmacology like antidepressant withdrawal, agranulocytosis, Stevens Johnson syndrome, priapism, serotonin syndrome, akathisia, suicidal ideation, and neuroleptic malignant syndrome. In a previous post, I describe some of the discussion. I generally want to make sure that the patient is aware of any black box warnings, contraindications, and warnings. I will often do a drug interaction search in front of the patient so that I can discuss it with them rather than doing it after the interview.

In some cases, my treatment will depend on my discussion with their primary care physician, cardiologist, or other specialist. It may also depend on me ordering tests that I view as critical and getting those test results.  

4.  A discussion of potential psychotherapy treatments

There are research proven psychotherapies that should be part of any informed consent discussion. I commonly inform patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that exposure therapy and the EMDR variant are very good approaches to the disorder and may be superior to pharmacotherapy. That does not mean that I won’t try to treat that patient for PTSD symptomatology, but I want to give them a clear message that the psychotherapy results may be much better. I have similar discussions regarding the psychotherapy of anxiety and depressive disorders specific to those conditions.  The psychotherapy may include supportive and crisis intervention approaches that occur right in the initial interview.  In psychiatry treatment interventions that involve psychotherapy can occur right at the time of the assessment. 

5.  A discussion of potential environmental/social approaches

One of the commonest problems in outpatient psychiatry is that there are clear environmental factors that are leading to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and substance use morbidity. Practically all of the people in those situations or consulting psychiatrists are looking for a medical treatment to address those environmental and social factors. I generally have detailed discussion about the evidence that medication works in those situations (there is very little) and what can be done.  I typically discuss examples like grief responses and the very common scenario of a stressful work environment or boss. I want to be sure that I emphasize the point that medical treatment of these acute and chronic stressors is almost always not enough to solve the problem.

6.  General treatment parameters

If the patient and I decide to proceed with treatment – a discussion of the general parameters of treatment needs to occur.  That would include indications for calling me and how to address potential medical and psychiatric emergencies.  In this day of external control of medical treatment – prescription refill policy can be discussed and how insurance company denials or prescriptions (prior authorization) will be handled.  In large systems of care, a discussion of who has access to the information in the chart and systems that deal with emergency and crisis calls can be a topic for discussion.  In the current Internet age modes of communication (email, texts, calls) also need to be discussed especially if there is no formal EHR portal.  Limitations on privacy are typically part of the general permission to treat but may require additional explanation like the CFR42 regulations for drug and alcohol treatment.

7.  Definition of the treatment alliance

As part of the general treatment discussion, definition the treatment alliance can be useful for many people.  Physical appearance and the appearance of one’s office can be a projective test for people entering treatment.  When I started out, I would get a lot of comments like: “You seem to be too young to be a doctor!”.  Now that I am an old man, my introduction has stayed the same.  Within a few minutes people know how long I have been in practice.  Most people can get past that and engage in a dialogue, but some people are overly deferential and seem intimidated.  Others decide to challenge the old man to see what he knows or if he can be pushed around. Both of those scenarios can be a topic of discussion but that might be too confrontive for most and lead to more problems in communication.  A more neutral approach is to discuss the typical diagnostic interview and treatment alliance. I find a basic definition that works for most people is: “You and I working on a problem or set of problems that you identify to see if we can find the solutions.”   

There have been entire books written on this topic, but most don’t focus on the ten or 15 minutes at the end that should be for the benefit of the person seeking help. That is my outline so far. Over the years I have had these discussions but not in a structured way. It de-emphasizes the diagnostic template or checklist and puts the emphasis on information that is directly useful for the patient. I plan to take the headings, add bullet points, and see if it adds to the discussion. I think it will because it will at least define the boundaries of the discussion, what I hope to communicate, and provide more solutions to people coming in to see me. And mostly I hope that it will counter the implicit assumption that all psychiatrists do is prescribe medications and that it is an easy thing to do.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Supplementary 1:

The preliminary form described above is contained in the 3 PNG files below. There are 49 bullet points so far. I have it as a Word file and a PDF so if you are interested in it send me an email and I will send you the format you want.  I consider this to be a work in progress. Click on the files below to enlarge for easy reading.

Supplementary 2:

As a preliminary screen - I looked at one day of intakes in my practice and discovered that I am routinely covering 30-36% of the bullet points on this form. That seems like a sufficient number but it would be a good idea to run a trial looking at the baseline for a number of clinicians (rated by independent observers) and then a second rating after the patients were provided the form ahead of time.