Delivering mental health care in a more rational fashion

Consider the following two clinical scenarios:

1. William, a 62 year-old accountant, has been feeling “depressed” since his divorce 5 years ago.  His practice, he says, is “falling apart,” as he has lost several high-profile clients and he believes it’s “too late” for his business to recover.  His adult son and daughter admire him greatly, but his ex-wife denigrates him and does everything she can to keep their children from seeing him.  William spends most of his days at his elderly parents’ house, a two-hour drive away, where he sleeps in the room (and bed) he occupied in his childhood.

William has been seeing Dr Moore every 1-2 weeks for the last 2 years.  Dr Moore has tried to support William’s ill-fated attempts to build up his practice, spend more time with his children, and engage in more productive activities, including dating and other social endeavors.  But William persistently complains that it’s “of no use,” he’ll “never meet anyone,” and his practice is “doomed to fail.”  At times, Dr Moore has feared that William may in fact attempt suicide, although to this point no attempt has been made.

2. Claudia is a 68 year-old Medicare recipient with a history of major depression, asthma, diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, chronic renal failure, low back pain, and—for the last year—unexplained urinary incontinence.  She sees Dr Smith approximately every four weeks.  In each visit (which typically lasts about 20 minutes), Dr Smith must manage all of Claudia’s complaints and concerns, and while Dr Smith has made referrals to the appropriate medical specialists, Claudia’s condition has not improved.  In fact, Claudia now worries that she’s a “burden” on everyone else, especially her family, and “just wants to die.”  She and her daughter ask Dr Smith to “do something” to help.

Each of these scenarios is an actual case from my practice (with details changed to maintain anonymity).  Both William and Claudia are in emotional distress, and a case could be made for a trial of a psychiatric medication in each of them.

The problem, however, lies in the fact that only one of these “doctors” is a medical doctor: in this case, Dr Smith.  As a result, despite whatever experience or insight Dr Moore may have in the diagnosis of mental illness, he’s forbidden from prescribing a drug to treat it.

I recently gave a presentation to a Continuing Education program sponsored by the California School of Professional Psychology.  My audience was a group of “prescribing psychologists”—licensed psychologists who have taken over 500 hours of psychopharmacology course work in addition to the years to obtain their psychology PhDs.  By virtue of their core training, these psychologists do not see patients as “diseases” or as targets for drugs.  Although they do receive training in psychiatric diagnosis (and use the same DSM as psychiatrists), neuroanatomy, and testing/assessment, their interventions are decidedly not biological.  Most of them see psychotherapy as a primary intervention, and, more importantly, they are well versed in determining when and how medications can be introduced as a complement to the work done in therapy.  Most states, however (including my own, California) do not permit psychologists to obtain prescribing privileges, resulting in a division of labor that ultimately affects patient care.

Let’s return to the scenarios: in scenario “A,” Dr Moore could not prescribe William any medication, although he followed William through two brief antidepressant trials prescribed by William’s primary care physician (with whom, incidentally, Dr Moore never spoke).  When Dr Moore referred William to me, I was happy to see him but didn’t want to see myself as just a “prescriber.”  Thus, I had two long phone conversations with Dr Moore to hear his assessment, and decided to prescribe one of the drugs that he recommended.  William still sees both Dr Moore and me.  It’s arguably a waste of time (and money), since each visit is followed by a telephone call to Dr Moore to make sure I’m on the right track.

Claudia’s case was a very different story.  Because Claudia complained of being a “burden” and “wanting to die”—complaints also found in major depression—Dr Smith, her primary care physician, decided to prescribe an antidepressant.  He prescribed Celexa, and about one month later, when it had had no obvious effect, he gave Claudia some samples of Abilify, an antipsychotic sometimes used for augmentation of antidepressants.  (In fact, Dr Smith told Claudia to take Abilify three times daily, with the admonishment “if you want to stop crying, you need to take this Abilify three times a day, but if you stop taking it, you’ll start crying again.”)  Like it or not, this counts as “mental health care” for lots of patients.

Some would argue that the only ones qualified to prescribe medications are medical doctors.  They would claim that Dr Moore, a psychologist, might have crossed a professional boundary by “suggesting” an antidepressant for William, while Dr Smith, a physician, has the full ability to assess interactions among medications and to manage complex polypharmacy, even without consulting a psychiatrist.  In reality, however, Dr Smith’s “training” in psychotropic drugs most likely came from a drug rep (and his use of samples was a telltale sign), not from advanced training in psychopharmacology.  When one considers that the majority of psychotropic medication is prescribed by non-psychiatrists like Dr Smith, it’s fairly safe to say that much use of psychiatric drugs is motivated by drug ads, free samples, and “educational dinners” by “key opinion leaders,” and provided without much follow-up.

Furthermore, Dr Smith’s training in mental health most likely pales in comparison to that of Dr Moore.  Psychologists like Dr Moore have five or more years of postgraduate training, 3000 or more hours of clinical supervision, research experience, and have passed a national licensing exam.  But they’re forbidden from using medications that have been FDA-approved for precisely the conditions that they are extraordinarily well-equipped to evaluate, diagnose, and treat.

A satisfactory alternative would be an integrated behavioral health/primary care clinic in which professionals like Dr Moore can consult with a psychiatrist (or another “psychiatric prescriber”) to prescribe.  This arrangement has been shown to work in many settings.  It also allows for proper follow-up and limits the number of prescribers.  Indeed, pharmaceutical companies salivate at the prospect of more people with prescribing authority—it directly expands the market for their drugs—but the fact is that most of them simply don’t work as well as advertised and cause unwanted side effects.  (More about that in a future post.)

The bottom line is that there are ways of delivering mental health care in a more rational fashion, by people who know what they’re doing. As it currently stands, however, anyone with an MD (or DO, or NP) can prescribe a drug, even if others may possess greater experience or knowledge, or provide higher-quality care.  As an MD, I’m technically licensed to perform surgery, but trust me, you don’t want me to remove your appendix.  By the same token, overworked primary care docs whose idea of treating depression is handing out Pristiq samples every few months are probably not the best ones to treat depression in the medically ill.  But they do, and maybe it’s time for that to change.

Steve Balt is a psychiatrist who blogs at Thought Broadcast.

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