Monday, June 29, 2020

Should You Trust Your Physician?

As far as I can tell there are two basic considerations in whether or not you trust your physician. The first is combination of personality and cultural factors and the resulting expectations you have when you see a physician. That may have something to do with your actual experience, but also may have more to do with observations from the care of other people. As an example, you saw your father was cared for and thought it was excellent care and expect the same care for yourself. That can also backfire in the case where you believe the observed care was substandard and led you to be more skeptical of medical care administered by physicians. From a cultural standpoint, you may be from a culture that does not trust authority figures or even physicians.  These are all very complicated issues, that I will illustrate with personal examples of treatment I have received over the years.

The second approach to whether or not you trust your physician, is to adopt a very performance-based approach. That approach is the answer to the question: “What has this doctor done for me and do I like those results?” Medicine is a complex field made more complicated by subjective assessment of the patient in their experience of care and treatment. As a psychiatrist, I see people who are very satisfied with their care from physicians and surgeons and many who are dissatisfied. I see people who have had the exact same procedure – let’s say a hip replacement with identical functional results.  One of these patients will tell me, that they are doing very well and the other will describe disappointment.  The disappointed patient will often tell me they are only slightly improved than when their joint was “bone on bone”.

My own experience with physicians is mixed at best. When I was a teenager, was in a doctor’s office and developed acute facial swelling, wheezing, and my eyelids were swollen to the point I could barely see. The explanation was given to my parents at the time was it was “psychosomatic” I was not treated with anything. The next several years, the only treatment I got was to get up at night go out into the cool night air and drink caffeinated soda. Needless to say that was suboptimal. When I finally saw an allergist about six years later I was “allergic to everything” and finally started taking antihistamines. But eight years later when I was intern, I saw an allergy specialist who spent the entire interview demanding to know what I wanted to try immunotherapy. I guess it was his form of motivational interviewing.  I never went back.

In medical school, I started to get gout attacks. With the first attack I went the emergency department and spent six hours there.  I was discharged with acetaminophen and codeine – a medication that is essentially worthless for gout pain. During a follow-up appointment in the orthopedic clinic, I was told that I probably sprained my ankle in bed and they put a cast on it. Gout pain gradually resolves after about two weeks and that is what happened. But the gout saga does not end there. During residency I started to get acute wrist pain. I went to a primary care clinic where the physician learned my history and then tried to aspirate my wrist joint with a large needle. That was a skill set that he did not have, but he did end up aspirating some tissue into the syringe that was eventually identified as synovium from the joint.  At some point, I also had a left inguinal lymph node biopsy that went awry. I went back to work and started gushing blood all over my khakis. The surgeon advised me to come to his office right away and by then my shoes were full of blood. I left bloody footprints all over his carpeting.  He cut open the incision and tied off the artery in the office while two nurses held me down.

That is a sampling of my negative experience. There is actually a lot more, but despite these fiascoes I have been able to find physicians that I trust and routinely go back to see. I have been seeing the same primary care physician for the past 30 years - recommended by psychiatric colleague who worked with him.

From a cultural standpoint, I was taught to be skeptical of everyone. My father was a blue-collar worker who routinely talked about the abuses of the administrative class and how working people were taken advantage of. He was in a union and would routinely show me the house that the president of the union lived in compared to our house.  That perspective is still ingrained at some level, but it does not prove very useful when it comes to medical care. The reason is that at some point almost everybody needs medical care and that typically includes care that involves doing something that you would rather not do. That might be surgical procedure or taking medication for a long time or even getting an immunization. But the choices are often fairly dire and that is continue to be miserable or die or accept the recommended treatment. Despite my medical misadventures, I continue to accept doctor’s recommendations even when they have significant risk.

I also come at this from the perspective of interacting with thousands of patients, many of whom don’t trust doctors at all. In most extreme circumstances, I had to interact productively with people who not only did not trust doctors but were simultaneously being coerced into treatment by the probate court system. In other words they were on involuntary holds, probate court holds, or civil commitment. That was the best possible experience to conceptualize the physician trust issue. A typical exchange follows:

MD:  “Hi – I’m George Dawson and I’m the psychiatrist here. It looks like I am seeing you because you were admitted to this unit on a 72-hour hold.”

Pt: “I don’t trust psychiatrists. I just want to be discharged.”

MD: “In order to do that, I have to make an assessment of the situation and determine if you can be released or not.”

Pt: “Why should I trust you?”

MD: “I can’t think of a reason why you should. You just met me. I would suggest that we proceed with the evaluation and see how that goes. At the end of the evaluation I will let you know what my impression and recommendations are. You can decide whether or not you trust me based on what happens. If you decide to follow my recommendations you can also base your decision on whether or not those recommendations work for you. Does that seem reasonable?”

That is the basic framework that I tried to outline for people are focused on trust. The focus is on actual performance as well as subjectivity. The subjective elements are a number of factors on the patient’s side.  They include all of the conscious and unconscious factors involved in interpersonal assessments as well as any overriding psychopathology. The most important element of the patient’s conscious state is whether or not they can incorporate the information that they are receiving from the physician into their responses and adapt a different framework for the interaction. Not everybody is able to do that, but the great majority of people are to some degree.

The above example is from what is probably the most contentious situation.  I think the approach works even better in outpatient settings where people have had adverse experiences in psychiatric care like my experiences with medical care.  In some of those situations a description of the therapeutic alliance is useful. That might go something like this:

“It might be useful to discuss how these interviews work.  You and I are both focused on the problems that you identify.  We discuss them and at some point, my job is to give you the best possible medical advice on how to address them.  Your job at that point is to think about that advice and whether or not you find it useful and want to use it.  It is also possible that your problems are not medical or psychiatric in nature. I will let you know if I think so.”

That clarifies a few points.  The interview is not a unilateral “analysis”.  Many people have the psychiatric stereotype that a psychiatrist can just look at you and figure out the problem. To this day, many people that I casually meet still ask me if I am “analyzing them.”  It also points out that I am interested in what they identify as problems – not somebody else’s idea of the problem. Unless that is explicit, many people go out of their way to tell me that it was their idea to see me or go to treatment.  Most importantly – it emphasizes that this is a cooperative effort.  I have no preconceived idea about their problem or diagnosis.  My ideas develop from the discussion and there has to be agreement that I am on track.

That is my basic approach to the trust issue in interactions with patients.  There are many variations on that theme.  Although what I have written here is from the physician perspective – I can add that from the patient perspective the performance dimension is very important.  My personal internist always takes enough time to assess my problems and do an adequate evaluation.  He has made some remarkable diagnoses based on those evaluations.  That performance over time builds trust as well.  It also highlights another important aspect from the patient perspective and that is empathy towards the physician.  Is there an understanding of how the physician’s cognitive ability and emotional capacity can be affected by outside factors? Is there any allowance for even minor physician errors or lapses in etiquette – like being very late for an appointment?  People vary greatly in that capacity and often it is necessary to keep a productive relationship going.

Most medicine these days is run by corporations rather than physicians. That makes it harder to establish long term relationships with physicians. In the above narrative I hope that I outlined the advantages of that relationship as opposed to one that may be more like being asked 20 questions about a medical condition by different people every time you go into a clinic.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Depression Prevalence and Other Checklist Limits

I finished reading a paper last night about estimating the prevalence of depression using the PHQ-9 (1). The paper had 76 authors including one of the most well recognized epidemiologists in the world. It was focused on the differences in estimating depression prevalence using a structured research interview specifically the SCID (Structured Clinical Interview for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders versus the PHQ-9 - a nine item checklist based on the DSM criteria for major depression. If you ever need a reference paper for how to write an epidemiology paper based on a literature search this is probably a good one to have.

The authors did an extensive literature review in the end found 44 (n=9,242) studies that looked at comparisons between the PHQ-9 and the SCID.  The result was that the pooled results showed that depression prevalence estimates with the PHQ-9 (total score ≥ 10) were about 25% and for the SCID it was 12%.  Modifying the criteria for the PHQ-9 to a score of ≥ 14 and using a separate PHQ-9 diagnostic algorithm resulted in a lower prevalence estimate but a wide margin of error.  The authors conclude that structured interviews are the best approach to prevalence estimates largely because they are closer to clinician style interviews and through clarification, they can limit confounding variables. Nobody ever seems to comment on the restrictive aspects of both checklists and structured interviews.  After all,  DSM criteria that are embedded in the matrix of questions and elaborations in the SCID are basically converted to nine unidimensional questions in the PHQ-9. It should be obvious that there would be a correlation between the two when the PHQ-9 is validated against the SCID, but instead it is accepted as an academic exercise.

The first thing I thought about when I saw these numbers and read the paper was “even the SCID prevalence figures are too high”.  I base that on numbers available in a standard textbook on psychiatric epidemiology (2).  Reviewing much larger sample sizes across 25 countries yields one-year prevalence figures for depression of 2.6-10.3% (median 5.3%) lifetime prevalence figures of 2 to 16.2% (median 8.6%). In that table the variation in very large community samples ranging from 5000 to 42,000 subjects in the United States seem to depend on the research methodology more than anything and structured interviews other than the SCID were used.

The selected samples from reference 1 are detailed in table 1 and very few of them are community samples. They are relatively small outpatient samples of identified medical patients or people seeking medical services for themselves or another person. Many of the conditions have known comorbidity with depression. The authors list this as a study limitation particularly “where the presence of transdiagnostic somatic symptoms and adjustment to illness or injury may have contributed to error variance”.  They also comment on the heterogeneity of the study settings and how that might affect the data. That is certainly my concern for post stroke patients, multiple sclerosis patients, Parkinson’s disease patients, epilepsy outpatients, and other neurological conditions for depression is a common comorbidity. The implicit message from this paper is that depression prevalence estimates from clinical samples will be higher than estimates from epidemiological community surveys.

But there is a much larger lesson here than differences in depression prevalence estimates based on methodology or clinical sample. For me the heart of the matter is the difference between a psychiatric interview, a structured clinical interview, and a checklist.  I have expressed my concerns over the years that checklists are currently surrogates for psychiatric interviews and I can confirm this on a weekly basis. Most the patients I see have seen primary care physicians or nonpsychiatrists and they tell me how they are given a PHQ-9, a diagnosis based on that rating scale, and a prescription. That model of care is promoted by some organizations as “evidence-based medicine”. In some cases it is called “measurement based medicine”. The state of Minnesota for example has a project were all PHQ-9 scores are collected from any clinic treating patients with a diagnosis of major depression. This was supposed to be some kind of quality measure even though an analysis of all the cross-sectional data has never been done.

When I talk with people who have taken these checklists and asked them about depression it is common to hear the question “What do you mean by depression? I am still not sure about what that means and the difference between depression and anxiety.” I hear those questions from people who have been filling out the rating scales and getting medications prescribed to them based on those scores and yet they are uncertain about the concept of depression. How can that happen?

The obvious way is by limiting choices. If a nine-item checklist is given to a person and they are told to answer a specific question as one of 4 choices, most people will check a box.  In the case of the SCID – there is more elaboration.  People are asked about whether there was a time in the last month when they felt “depressed or down most of the day nearly every day?”. They are asked to elaborate and whether or not it affected their interest or pleasure in activities. They are asked if it lasted as long as two weeks. At that point there is a qualifier that says the interviewer is not supposed to include symptoms “that are clearly due to a physical condition, mood-incongruent delusions or hallucinations, incoherence are marked loosening of associations, or that are clearly part of the residual or prodromal phases of schizophrenia”. Additional questions about symptoms of the depressive syndrome follow.

Many clinics use electronic health record (EHR) templates that include checklists about all of the major classes of psychiatric syndromes. They are a variation on the SCID but they generally result in more spontaneity and elaboration than a checklist but not as much as the structured interview. What is lost along the way?  I would suggest – a lot.

The rationale for structured interviews is reliability or consistency in responses.  If any population is given a matrix of the same questions to differentiate different conditions – no matter how exhaustive - there will be a pattern of responses that has internal consistency. Viewed from that perspective, the PHQ-9 is just a very abbreviated and less specific version of the SCID – hence the difference in prevalence estimates.

Although prevalence estimates are often the focus of criticism (too high, too low, just right) what is typically missed is that they really have limited application to good clinical psychiatry. Psychiatrists do not do SCID interviews on patients and the reasons may not be that apparent. Psychiatric diagnoses depend on a lot more than a symptom checklist and the total time to administer a SCID (2-3 hours) is prohibitive. There is also a question of efficiency.  In practice the psychiatrist has to be able to focus on all relevant aspects of the identified problem not areas that are not considered to be a problem.  Most importantly – the psychiatric interview needs to recognize that the person in the conversation has a unique conscious state that is interpreting their emotional, cognitive, and physical experience. The psychiatrists has to understand how that is happening.

There is probably no better discussion of this crucial aspect of the interview than that provided by Nordgaard, Sass and Parnas (3). These authors use the term “a conversational, phenomenologically oriented interview, performed by am experienced and reliability-trained psychiatrist.”  as the more optimal and preferred approach.  After reading their work, I realized that it is what I have been doing for the past 35 years.  In a more recent article, this group has compared American phenomenology to a simple study of signs and symptoms and suggested their use of the term is more consciousness based:

“It refers to a faithful exploration, description, and conceptualization of the patient’s contents and structures of subjective life and modes of existence (eg, not only the content of the delusion but its mode of emergence and articulation and ways of experiencing the delusion)” (4)

They suggest this requires an interview that maximizes self-description and a knowledgeable physician with a “rich conceptual repertoire”.  Since the DSM approach is intentionally atheoretical – it speaks to the need to be trained in a variety of psychopathological theories.  Andreasen (5) has previously written about the death of phenomenology as being an unintended consequence of the DSM approach.  In my experience it is easily approached in residency training as the need for a empathy based formulation that makes sense to the patient.  In their article (3) the authors provide a table comparing what is elicited with a structured interview as opposed to a phenomenologically based conversational interview.  In the table below I provide my own example for a patient with depression. I will add that in most electronic health records these days there are templates that are essentially structured interviews requiring brief responses and very little discussion about the process or content of those responses. Those templates are further limited by the fact that all of the information needs to be entered by the psychiatrist doing the interview - a further inefficiency.

Structured Interview
Conversational Interview
She has been depressed all of her life with very few periods of neutral mood. The depression includes periods of extreme irritability.  The depression worsens from time to time.
She had had long term depression but it is clearly worsened in specific contexts. There are situations that specifically make her anxiety worse and when this happens, she “spirals down” into a depression and will often spend the entire weekend in bed. A lot of these episodes are associated with a stressful job and a specific interpersonal conflict at work.
She describes a motivational deficits and anhedonia.
During the episodes of worsening depression and isolation – she watches TV all day long. She is not motivated to exercise but occasionally will push herself to go for a jog. She was the high school state record holder in the quarter mile. Even though it is initially difficult she feels much better afterwards and the activity reminds her of the importance of exercise in her life and how she used to work out in high school.
Decreased concentration and memory problems
She has had life long concerns about her memory and at one point considered “getting tested” for ADHD. She got a degree in molecular biology and graduated summa cum laude. She is currently working in a professor's lab and thinking of applying for a PhD program. She has no problem reading and retaining information from highly technical journals and devising lab protocols or her favorite science fiction. She attends meetings where her mind wanders.
Depressing thoughts
“I am a perfectionist and am my own worst critic.” She was encouraged from an early age to get A grades in school and had a nearly catastrophic reaction when she got a B in high school.  She still remembers that teacher who told her that getting a B would be “good for her”. Her parents were always critical and she realized at some level she has internalized some of these criticisms especially when it comes to body image and weight: “I don’t think being petite and wearing the latest fashions makes me a better scientist”. Despite fairly constant self-criticism it never gets to the point where she feels worthless.  
I have some suicidal thoughts but have never made a suicide attempt or an attempt to hurt myself.
“I read a journal article somewhere that looked at the prevalence of suicidal thoughts and they are fairly common.” She describes intrusive thoughts about suicide that are obsessional in nature. “I drive across this bridge every day.  If I am having a bad day, I think about cranking the wheel at the half way point and driving off. But I know I will never do it.  I am too chicken and I have too much going for me.  I want to hang around and see what happens.”

The conversational interview is information rich and allows for more extensive pattern matching.  The PHQ-9 and even the SCID describes a very limited pattern or as Kendler (6) describes indexing of major psychiatric disorders.  That is the primary (and limited) intent of the DSM.  But Kendler points out that it is really a jumping off point for the additional study of psychopathology.  I would also point out that it ignores what is the elephant in the room for psychiatrists – human consciousness.  Consciousness in psychiatry tends to be mentioned only when it is grossly impaired rather than existing as the every day moderator of everything.

When the additional pattern matching takes place, the only real limit is the interviewer’s ability to recognize it and what it means. In the ideal world that should lead to further elaboration of the patient’s concerns, education based on the psychiatrist’s understanding of the general problem and more specifically how it affects the unique patient, and specific treatments that have worked before.  It can extend to a unique approach to the associated DSM disorder that would not have been possible with a highly structured interview.  One of the best examples I can think of are life long sleep problems that become anxiety and depressive disorders as an adult – because the development of those disorders and the sleep disorder is not covered in detail.  There are a lot of examples.

In closing this post, prevalence estimates for psychiatric disorders vary greatly.  That is the expected result of the screening methodology that includes the instrument used, the population sampled, and the prevalence of the disorder being screened in the population. Very basic screens like checklists used as a proxy for diagnoses will have the highest prevalence estimates. More comprehensive structured interviews will be somewhat lower. The gold standard for epidemiological work (structured interview) is not the gold standard for clinical work (the semi-structured phenomenologically oriented interview).  It is also the reason psychiatrists need to know psychopathology, phenomenology, and case formulations based on those disciplines.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

1:  Levis B, Benedetti A, Ioannidis JPA, et al. Patient Health Questionnaire-9 scores do not accurately estimate depression prevalence: individual participant data meta-analysis. J Clin Epidemiol. 2020;122:115128.e1. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2020.02.002

2:  Hasin DS, Fenton MC, Weissman MM.  Epidemiology of depression disorders. In: Tsuang MT, Tohen M, Jones PB, editors.  Textbook of Psychiatric Epidemiology, Third Edition. West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2011: 289-309.

3:  Nordgaard J, Sass LA, Parnas J. The psychiatric interview: validity, structure, and subjectivity. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2013;263(4):353364. doi:10.1007/s00406-012-0366-z

4:  Parnas J, Zanderson M. Rediscovering disordered selfhood in schizophrenia. Psychiatric Times.   Jun 08, 2020

5:  Nancy C. Andreasen, DSM and the Death of Phenomenology in America: An Example of Unintended Consequences, Schizophrenia Bulletin, Volume 33, Issue 1, January 2007, Pages 108–112,

6:  Kendler KS. DSM issues: incorporation of biological tests, avoidance of reification, and an approach to the "box canyon problem". Am J Psychiatry. 2014;171(12):12481250. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.14081018