Do psychiatrists have value? Yes, they do.

While slogging through a crappy first draft of a document about the value of psychiatrists in mental health and substance use disorder services, I did a literature search for supporting evidence.

I found nothing. (1)

“So how exactly are we helpful?” I mused out loud. Maybe we aren’t: There are groups out there who do not believe that psychiatrists can or do help anyone.

I am an N of 1. Therefore, this post is an anecdote, not evidence. Nonetheless:

Psychiatrists provide psychiatric services. These are increasingly limited to only medication management, which is unfortunate. Psychiatrists need psychotherapy skills — or, abilities to connect with people to build trusting and respectful relationships — to do effective medication management. I can write dozens of prescriptions and change doses as much as I want, but if the person I am working with doesn’t trust me, none of my tinkering matters.

When people think about medication management, they often think only of adding medications or exchanging one for another. Medication management also includes helping people come off of medications. This “deprescribing” also requires the use of psychotherapy skills: Some people feel great discomfort when coming off of medications. Sometimes the reasons are physiological; sometimes they’re psychological. Psychotherapeutic interventions and education are necessary in helping people cope with and overcome these discomforts. (2)

Psychiatrists often have the most clinical expertise. Most have had exposure to the spectrum of psychiatric services (in residency training) and thus have perspective about how systems work (or fail). Thus, psychiatrists can provide clinical consultation about specific patients and program design, implementation, and improvement. One example is the use of medication assisted treatment for substance use disorders. Certain programs or agencies may believe in abstinence only and will view medications as another misused substance. That perspective is not invalid, though giving people more options may help someone reach the goal of abstinence.

Psychiatrists can provide education to other staff to improve their clinical skills, which can elevate the quality of care clients receive across the agency. Psychiatrists can also provide leadership and influence the direction and ethos of a clinical service. For example, you can imagine how a psychiatrist might influence a service if he believes that the only way to help patients is to convince them to take psychotropic medications forever. A different psychiatrist who believes that employment or housing may be more effective than medication for some patients would provide a different influence.

Psychiatrists can triage patients who are in crisis. A roving psychiatrist on the streets or visiting people in their homes often can’t do things like draw blood, but they can assess people and circumstances to determine whether a visit to the emergency department can be avoided. Psychiatrists can also provide strong advocacy: Psychiatrists can work with law enforcement so that people who would be better served in a hospital actually go to the hospital, and not to jail. Similarly, if someone who has a significant psychiatric condition requires medical attention, psychiatrists can talk with hospital staff to advocate for this. Too many of us have stories about our patients who needed medical interventions, but others thought their symptoms were entirely due to psychiatric conditions.

Psychiatrists go through medical training and often have ongoing contact with other medical specialties. They are thus familiar with the practical realities of communication about and coordination of care for patients across systems. While overcoming the financial and policy hurdles to integrate care are important, the reason why integration matters (or, at least why I hope it matters) is to improve the experience for the patient. Administrators should consider the interaction and experience between the physician and the patient as paramount. The system should not sacrifice that relationship to make administration easier.

This is the message that all physicians, psychiatrists or otherwise, need to communicate to administrators. We don’t do ourselves any favors by assuming that people know what value we bring to patients or to the system. Sometimes it also helps to remind ourselves, too, so we can improve our work for the people we serve.

1. Physicians, as a population, don’t advocate for ourselves as much as we should because we’re “too busy taking care of patients.” This is true. However, our busy-ness creates a vacuum where non-physicians step in and make decisions for us. We then express resentment that we have to follow the edicts of people who have never done the work. If we did a better job of regulating and advocating for ourselves, we might not be in this position. 

2. For any psychiatrists out there: You could build an entire practice around “deprescribing.” This is one of the most common clinical requests I receive through my blog. I don’t have a private practice, so I turn all these people away. To be clear, deprescribing isn’t limited to private practices; I deprescribe in my clinical work in the jail.

Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Maria Yang, MD.

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