Sunday, August 31, 2014

Boyhood Movie Review

Putin. Gaza. Ebola. ISIS. Ferguson. Robin Williams. This has been one of the more unsettling summers in recently memory. However, as we head towards Labor Day and I look back on the last couple of months, what I recall most clearly and fondly (besides some personal and family matters that are irrelevant here) is watching Boyhood, by director Richard Linklater.

The film stars Ellar Coltrane as Mason, who is 6 at the beginning of the story. We watch as he grows year by year into an 18 year-old young man. Forget all those gimmicky 3D movies; this is a 4D film, where the genuine passage of 12 years of time adds an extra dimension that cannot be faked by CG.

Boyhood succeeds in capturing something about the essence of our times when it comes to parenting and childhood. The parents have split, and the dad, played by Ethan Hawke, is barely around initially, only occasionally swooping into his kids lives like a tornado of fun. Meanwhile, the mom (Patricia Arquette) struggles to raise her children while trying to go back to school so her family could break free from the struggles of low-wage America.

Amazingly, the director found a young actor in Coltrane who was able to deliver a consistently convincing performance from childhood to adolescence. The film opens with him lying on the grass staring into the sky, leaving us to wonder what he makes of life. Coltrane was able to project this introspective nature throughout, and as a young man engages in the kind of philosophical discussions that Linklater's characters are known to do.

However, Boyhood is as much a coming of age movie about Mason's parents as it is about Mason's own journey. I found it interesting that the adults seemed to be engaged in a search for identity as much or more so than the children. The character who evolves the most over the 12 years is Mason's father, who becomes a minivan-driving, church-going actuary in middle age. Mason's mother ends up as a somewhat tragic figure who has to balance her career with parenting while dealing with a string of bad relationships. Our culture really is harder on women, and this film reflects that reality.

Boyhood has been the best reviewed movie of the summer and deservedly so. One may look at the box office receipts for the latest Transformers assault on the senses ($243.8M) vs. Boyhood ($16.3M) and despair; I choose to see the fact that this movie was made at all as a sign that there is still hope.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Limits of Big Data in Psychiatry

While browsing The Atlantic earlier this week, I came across this:

Yes, I was tempted to click on the article involving electric shocks, but it was the ad "Rising Mental Health Issues Facing Our Children, in Five Charts" that caught my attention. The colorful charts show some alarming-looking numbers that most readers of this blog are probably used to seeing by now: that there is a large increase in children receiving mental health diagnoses, that ADHD is diagnosed at very high rates (especially in the South), that children on Medicaid are more likely to receive a mental health diagnosis than children with commercial insurance, etc. The data for the charts were gathered from pediatrician visits across the country by athenahealth (apparently they're too cool for capital letters), the electronic health record (EHR) company who paid for the ad.

They helpfully included a video at the bottom of the ad so we can get "perspectives on these trends from top health care leaders." Take a look:

Watching this video, I was struck by the words of Kurt Newman, M.D., President and CEO of Children's National Medical Center:
"These graphs are just probably the tip of the iceberg. The directional trend is very disturbing, but also the magnitude is disturbing, and these pediatricians are swamped.
That's why we need to do more research, we need to have a better system in terms of more providers, we need to be able to pay the providers a reasonable amount for the care they're giving. But I think if we do all that, we're going to have a huge impact for these kids and families."
Classic. There's an epidemic on, doctors are swamped—we need more funding so we can provide more treatment! No wonder he's the CEO. And like many other CEOs, he oversells when talking about the future:
"We're on the cusp of something really huge there. It's kind of like big data and big analytics that are gonna really revolutionize how we can identify these trends or get specific about certain diseases […] Autism might be a hundred different rare diseases that are all rolled up into one. We won't figure that out unless we have the analytics, all of the the really sophisticated capability of probing into: is that patient like that patient, is that child like that child, what made them more similar?"
Perhaps I'm too dumb to comprehend big data/analytics, but I fail to see how information mined from an EHR is going to shed light on the etiology of autism. Also featured in the video is Angela Diaz, M.D., Director of the Mt. Sinai Adolescent Health Center, who seems to have a more common sense take on the data:
"We need to figure out what is leading to these kids…30% of U.S. students to feel sad and hopeless for the last 12 months, and of those, 40% of the girls? What is going on? So we need to get to the root causes of these things, and try to identify and then figure out, how to prevent?"
I certainly agree with Dr. Diaz on the importance of trying to determine the root causes of the rising rates of these conditions. However, having the raw data and figuring out causality are two very different things. I would argue that in psychiatry we already have access to tons of data, but unfortunately much of it is interpreted through a very narrow, biologically-oriented lens. Having faster access to bigger pools of data is not going to help. Example in point: the January 2014 JAACAP article that described rising rates of ADHD in the US, which I had previously blogged about. That article was accompanied by an editorial by Drs. Walkup, Stossel, and Rendleman that essentially heralded the findings as good news and a sign that ADHD is being increasingly recognized and treated, which is desirable from a "public health" point of view.

In the June 2014 issue of JAACAP, Dr. Jonathan Posner wrote a very reasonable letter to the editor (subscription required), pointing out that other, more rigorous studies (relying on both parent and teacher report instead of parent report only) have found rates of ADHD closer to 5-7% instead of the 11% reported in the JAACAP article. He concludes that the reason for the rapidly increasing rates of ADHD diagnosis in the community may be "that a substandard approach to diagnosing ADHD has become the norm." Drs. Walkup and Rendleman wrote a reply (subscription required); here's the first paragraph of their response:
Thank you very much for your comments. Your position is one that we believe is shared by many, which is why we wrote the piece. Although we respect your and others’ opinions, we find it difficult to support the statement that rising rates are due largely to substandard assessment of ADHD—it is just too simplistic an explanation. The solution that you allude to is likely not tenable for a high-prevalence condition such as ADHD, because there just aren’t enough child psychiatrist providers to do it all. We are not advocating poor-quality diagnosis or inappropriate treatment; rather, the goal of the editorial was to understand the role of advocacy and education in rising rates, the importance of a public health approach to high-prevalence conditions, and to help child and adolescent psychiatrists come to terms with the fact that our traditional model of care, which is time intensive and highly personalized, is not likely to be able to address the public health burden of ADHD. We certainly do not want to inhibit the pediatric prescriber from taking on the challenge. They need our support to do it well.
So the assumption they make is that cases of ADHD reflect a biological disorder and that increasing awareness of the condition amongst the population, diagnosing it, and treating it with medications is good and proper.

Imagine, for moment, something like this happening with the obesity epidemic. The maps of child obesity in the U.S. look suspiciously like those of the ADHD epidemic, with the highest rates in the deep South. Sure, there are drugs to treat obesity, but would anyone talk with a straight face about a "public health" approach to obesity consisting of identifying the cases and then treating them with medications? Wouldn't a better (and true) public health approach be to ensure that children can get adequate exercise, good nutrition, and that people aren't incentivized to buy the cheap calories and processed "foods" that are making them obese?

Thus, as long as the prevailing view of psychiatric conditions is a narrow one, the data will be used for narrow purposes, such as academic leaders/CEOs arguing for more resources, or to justify the high rates of psychiatric medication prescribing. Here, I'm not even going to get into some other questions I had about the athenahealth ad, including who its intended audience is and what it is trying to achieve. Most doctors recognize that EHRs do not help them care for patients. These systems mostly appeal to large clinics and hospital organizations, for reasons that I will let Dr. George Dawson's recent blog post explain.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Impact of False Diagnostic Labels

Back in April, an extraordinary article was published by Dr. Peter Parry, an Australian child psychiatrist, about his correspondence with an American adolescent who had been diagnosed with pediatric bipolar disorder (PBD) during the PBD craze in the early 2000's. I had linked to the article on Twitter, but I haven't had a chance to write about it until now.

The power of this article comes from the fact that it includes a detailed first-person account from the patient "Adam." He comes across as an extraordinarily thoughtful young man, who had a tragic but far from uncommon encounter with psychiatry. Here's what Adam had to say about being diagnosed with PBD and treated:
I was 12 when first diagnosed. I had suffered depression and anxiety including severe OCD, which has since disappeared. It should also be mentioned I come from a screwed-up family and was physically abused by a sibling. Parents divorced young. My mother had a lot of issues, etc. So it goes without saying there was a lot the psychiatrist should have asked if he was ever so inclined. But unfortunately, he holds a faculty appointment at [edited—A PBD oriented child and adolescent psychiatry clinic].

Within about three months, I was on 8 different medications at one time. Very scientific treatment—all the best—several anticonvulsants, several antipsychotics, a couple of antidepressants and lithium too.

Things got so bad, that I ended up being referred to the neurology department, for different opinions about strange symptoms I began having on this cocktail. Which resulted in their giving me a working diagnosis of some kind of mitochondrial myopathy. "Bipolar plus mitochondrial disease" as it went. Which I have been told only recently could have been precipitated by the huge amounts of divalproex I was taking. The symptoms quickly disappeared when I coincidentally stopped the drug for unrelated reasons. Oh well, but it is a clear illustration of what one of the "best" academic medical centers in the world has to offer a struggling young boy.
And here is Adam's perspective on how the diagnosis and treatment affected him:
But the worst part of this, which I have only been recently able to shake within the last year (2008/9), is the defectiveness I felt. Just kind of in some core way. Like I'm totally different. When I was younger, that feeling was a lot stronger and more prominent. Now I feel like a fool for even having given thought after eight years to the question of whether I might go to sleep one night and wake up manic. I decided with my (new) psychiatrist's support a year ago to stop my medicines. I’m not doing especially well now, but I have at least been able to shake the feelings the diagnosis itself carved into me. The same can’t be said for its physical and social effects though.
It's not just children and teenagers who are vulnerable to being misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder; it can even happen to an NBA millionaire. A couple of weeks ago, I read one of the best articles that I've ever encountered on mental health in professional sports, titled "Why Isn't Delonte West in the NBA?" As a casual basketball fan, I knew that West had been a part of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the LeBron James years. I've heard that he struggled with mental illness and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I recalled that he had been arrested after being found driving around with multiple weapons, and there were even rumors that he had slept with LeBron's mother. But this article provides the inside story of what actually happened, and the facts were deeply unsettling.

Delonte West grew up without a stable home, with a single mother who worked multiple jobs just to keep afloat after his parents divorced.
West has an older brother, a younger sister, and a vast extended family that he refers to as "a village." He stayed with many of those relatives growing up. "I lived off of every exit," he says, rattling off 11 specific ones from memory. "I lived in so many apartments … with cousins, uncles, and aunts, just making it."
In the NBA, he had several outbursts of anger, which led to him seeing a psychiatrist.
West was diagnosed as bipolar by a D.C.-area specialist. He says that when he saw the doctor, he’d been feeling down, having days when he was sad and tired and didn’t want to get out of bed. But he told the specialist that there were also times when he "might just go out and buy a car. Or go to the mall and spend 25 grand." West doesn't think the doctor took into consideration that such behavior might not be unusual for a professional athlete with a big paycheck. He now thinks that he was suffering a temporary bout of depression, not exhibiting symptoms of a chronic disorder.
Another part of the article provided additional context for West's inner struggles:
As a kid, moving from school to school, he often found himself the target of playground taunting. "I was real funny-looking," he says, with big ears, a mole on the back of his head that he had removed once he got to the NBA, and a birthmark below his lip that he's also had partially removed. His light skin and red hair stuck out, too. "I was made fun of a lot growing up, but I just knew the basketball court was the place where you couldn’t make fun of me, you had to respect me." He says he always had "more jokes for me than you had," but that he internalized the cruel things kids said to him. Last year, West told an interviewer that he believed his real problem was not bipolar disorder, but "self-loathing."
This was what actually happened in the weapons incident that contributed to derailing West's NBA career:
It was the offseason, and a few of West's cousins had come over to his house with their children. West's mother was looking after the kids while he slept and the other adults went out. At some point in the evening, West's mother woke him up. She said the kids had gotten into a closet in his small, in-home music studio, where he stored guns that he had bought, legally, in Cleveland. He needed to do something about those weapons, she told him.

With the driveway crowded by his cousins' cars, West got on his motorcycle so he could bring the guns to another residence. Earlier in the evening, he'd taken Seroquel, which is often prescribed for bipolar disorder. Seroquel makes you drowsy, and as he headed out on the highway, he found that he was dozing in and out. After he felt himself drifting off, West was pulled over for making an unsafe lane change, and he told the officer that he was carrying weapons. The day after the arrest, a police spokesman said that West was "very cooperative the entire time."
After his arrest, West played for the Cavaliers for another season, but the article makes the plausible argument that because West had been labelled with a mental illness, people were willing to believe whatever crazy things they heard about him, including the false rumor that he had slept with his teammate's mother. Undoubtedly, taking Seroquel contributed to his arrest. Without the "bipolar disorder" label, if instead the narrative had been that West had emotional issues due to childhood stresses, he may well still be in the NBA.

Earlier this week, Dr. David M. Allen had a blog post on misdiagnosis: "Is Your Psychiatrist Committing Malpractice Even if Doing What a Lot of Other Psychiatrists Are Doing?" (The short answer is "yes.") However, according to Dr. Parry's article, when Adam looked into his legal options, he was told "his treatment would be deemed 'standard practice' where he lived," which is a big deterrent for the lawyers when it comes to medical malpractice lawsuits. What a sad irony: the crappier the standard diagnosis and treatment becomes, the more the practitioner is protected by the herd.

When I was in medical school at a very biological psychiatry-oriented institution, the psychiatry professors made sure to educate us on the past evils of blaming refrigerator mothers for schizophrenia. And yet, as Dr. Parry pointed out, we have gone from the "brainless psychiatry" of the psychoanalysts to today's symptom-focused "mindless psychiatry" that tends to ignore the patient's inner life and the developmental biopsychosocial context. Here is my favorite section of Dr. Parry's article:
In addition to being a method of inquiry, science is a social process and there is a vast research literature concerning the sociology of science. Scientific disciplines do not build on knowledge in a purely linear fashion, but at times undergo dramatic upheavals according to paradigm shifts. The dominant paradigm governs what is acceptable to study, research, publish and practice. Softer sciences like psychiatry can be more susceptible to extreme paradigm shifts. The history of psychiatry reflects this. 
One of my biggest frustrations while reading Dr. Parry's words is that his wisdom is relegated to an opinion article published in a little known open-access journal, while the leading child psychiatry journal, which claims to be "advancing the science of pediatric mental health and promoting the care of youth and their families" [emphasis mine] would never permit such a sharp critique within its pages.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Psychiatry's Low-Tech Advantage

The other day, I received this in the mail:

It's a 57-page booklet/brochure ("bookchure"?) filled with professional photos designed to tug at the heartstrings, minimalist typography, and colorful charts highlighting the awesomeness of Akron Children's Hospital. All I could think of was, "How much money did they waste on this?" Living nowhere near Ohio, I will never have the chance to refer a patient to them. Pages 51-53 list 6 names on their Board of Directors, 26 Directors, 3 Directors Emeritus, and 5 Honorary Directors. This many Directors, I presume, are needed to oversee the 4751 employees and 703 medical staff (p. 50), as well as $1.06 billion in gross patient services revenue (p. 56).

And this wasn't the first such bookchure I've received. I've gotten similar mailings from the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, and probably other places that I've since forgotten. This is what our health care industry has become: Specialty centers who vie for clientele by boasting about the high-tech procedures and treatments that they offer. It reflects a system where about 20% of the population take up 80% of the costs (and even more damning, 5% of people account for 49% of spending).

At its core, Psychiatry is a very low-tech specialty, perhaps the one least reliant upon machines and specialized equipment. That's not to say there's no technology in the field, since knowledge constructs such as CBT are also forms of technology (and let's not forget Big Pharma), but psychiatry today is generally not what anyone would call "high-tech."

The leaders of academic psychiatry and the director of NIMH certainly view the low-tech nature of psychiatry as a huge disadvantage, a travesty that they are doing everything in their power to try to rectify. Hence the ever-greater emphasis on higher-tech ways of studying and manipulating the brain, whether it's optogenetics or connectomes.

However, I view psychiatry's low-tech nature as a huge advantage, at least when that advantage is embraced. A psychiatrist can easily start a practice due to low capital costs and enjoy low overhead since there is no need for a huge support staff. This keeps the focus on the relationship between the doctor and the patient, rather than having some other intermediary like an insurance company or a managed care organization extracting profit. Patients get to spend more time with their psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist has to see fewer patients, resulting in a win-win scenario. Especially if you believe, as I do, that a good therapeutic relationship can lead to positive changes.

Rather than embrace these advantages, the leaders of our profession have done all they can to minimize them, by advancing and supporting a biomedical model of psychiatry where psychiatrists are turned into prescribers doing brief med checks (or into consultants to other doctors). Since drugs are one of the few high-tech (and expensive) things in psychiatry, this of course serves the interests of pharmaceutical companies and the researchers that they support.

Last week, 1 Boring Old Man wrote about new APA President Paul Summergrad's plea for psychiatrists "to put aside internecine battles":
What [Summergrad's] predecessors have failed to notice is that a growing number of psychiatrists refuse to operate in the world created for them by Managed Care and insurance reimbursement, and that’s not all about money. […] A lot of it has to do with being unwilling to have practice dictated by excel spreadsheets in the offices of bureaucrats, the marketing departments of a corrupt industry, or the moguls of the APA and NIMH. Many avoid the APA like a plague. And many who still work in that system would be glad for a chance to change it into something more compatible with the real reasons they chose this specialty in the first place.
I really like the above paragraph from 1BOM since it captures the essence of the problems within our profession, but I would say that it's very hard to be a part of "that system" without being subject to general economic trends affecting all of healthcare. Most other specialities are not quite as low-tech as psychiatry, but the ones that rely on talking to patients and examining them using very basic equipment, such as internal medicine and pediatrics, certainly have similar dynamics.

With all that said, I am by no means anti-technology, as long as the technology is serving the patient. For example, a recent San Francisco Chronicle article highlights one entrepreneur's efforts to create "a website for a health care model in which members pay monthly fees for primary care." If that works, it would help remove primary care physicians from the grind of being in the current insurance reimbursement-based system, which has led to high rates of burnout. Also promising are the health initiatives of companies like Apple, which have the potential to empower individuals to keep better track of their own health (and allow doctors easier access to that information), which hopefully will someday decrease society's reliance on the high-tech specialty hospitals with their fancy publicity materials.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Assimilation vs. Independence

Last week, I got the chance to have dinner with a friend who is a businessman and one of his acquaintances, a cardiologist. My friend asked the two of us what we thought of the state of medicine, and what it was like being a doctor these days. It was interesting to hear what the cardiologist had to say. He had been part of an independent medical group, which was recently bought out by a large hospital system. He talked about all the additional rules and regulations that he had to follow and how burdensome they were. Then he had this to say:

"Basically, the problem is that doctors have no power or control over our own profession. The reimbursements rates and policies are determined by the government and private insurers. The doctors who are older can tell themselves they only have to stick with it a few more years before retiring, while younger doctors are too busy trying to establish themselves and pay down medical school debt. Doctors can't unionize or go on strike. It's hard to organize them because it's like herding cats. Therefore, we just have to accept the system and work within it."

I thought it was a very good summary of the present situation facing most medical specialties. It was a nice coincidence that the following day, 1 Boring Old Man wrote wrote this post highlighting some of his reactions to recent articles on psychiatrists & insurance panels, as well as whether psychiatrists who do psychopharmacology vs. psychotherapy will eventually split into different professions. He began:
I went into practice around 1986. If patients used insurance, that was fine with me, but for two simple reasons, it never occurred to me to take insurance. First, I would’ve had to have a staff to file it and keep up with it and I didn’t want to pass on those costs. Second, that would’ve required me to be on insurance panels that would’ve prescribed how I practiced, meaning becoming a psychiatrist who primarily prescribed medications – the kind of psychiatrist people rave about in the blog comments, on Mad in America, or on the steps of the APA Meeting in New York.
Dr. Dawson wrote the following in response to 1BOM's post:
We will all remain in the limbo of politicians telling us we need increased access and insurance companies decreasing access in order to increase their profitability.  And that has nothing to do with the fact that psychiatrists need to be trained in neurology, neuroscience, medicine, and psychotherapy.  Not accepting insurance is the ultimate affirmation that business does not define medicine or psychiatry.
In a comment on 1BOM's post, Dr. Reidbord had this to say:
It appears many of us psychiatrists simply got the memo a little earlier. Psychiatry, like primary care medicine, is fast becoming two-tier: practiced at the level of professional excellence when business does not define it, and something tragically less when it does.
What I wonder is, why don't more psychiatrists speak out about the state of things? The difficulty in spurring practicing clinicians to action is vexing, since I believe that the majority of psychiatrists enjoy spending time with patients and did not go into the profession to become 15-minute med checkers or care team consultants who do not directly see patients.

Of course, I think the cardiologist's explanation above is a good one, but additionally, I believe that ideology and zeal are two primary factors that give psychiatrists of the key opinion leader (KOL) variety a disproportionate amount of power. 1BOM has written before about the dangers of therapeutic zeal, while I've written about the NIMH's techno-utopian vision. The problem here is that ideology and zeal are unifying forces that rally people to a cause, allowing them to dictate the course of events even when they are in the minority. It is much harder to get people to rally around the banner of multi-disciplinary thought ("psychiatrists need to be trained in neurology, neuroscience, medicine, and psychotherapy") or the biopsychosocial model. As David Brooks wrote in a recent column on threats to the international system of liberal pluralism:
It was barely possible [to defend the system] when we were facing an obviously menacing foe like the Soviet Union. But it’s harder when the system is being gouged by a hundred sub-threshold threats. […]

Moreover, people will die for Mother Russia or Allah. But it is harder to get people to die for a set of pluralistic procedures to protect faraway places. It’s been pulling teeth to get people to accept commercial pain and impose sanctions.
Can there possibly be a solution? Well, it is fortuitous that at least for psychiatrists, independence is still an option. Unlike many other medical specialities, we don't have to buy expensive equipment or hire an extensive support staff. Solo office-based practice is still possible. In certain parts of the country, people are willing to pay $250 per hour for a psychiatrist who is good with both medications and therapy, though if you're like 1BOM and don't care about income maximization, you can probably work anywhere.

And perhaps some day, enough doctors will tire of the "long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism," and declare independence en masse. That'll be an interesting day.