Monday, October 14, 2013

Losing the White Coat Part 1: Medical School

This is part 1 of a series on the evolution of my approach to psychiatry. For background, I recommend reading A Most Influential Professor, which is essentially part 0 of this series.

Just about every medical school has a traditional white coat ceremony, during which the incoming class of medical students get their shiny new white coats that they will then wear throughout the rest of medical school during clinical experiences. At my school, the ceremony came with a recitation of a modified Hippocratic oath, adding to the gravitas of the day and helping us reflect on our future roles as healers and doctors.

The psychiatry faculty and residents at my school made it a point to insist that they were “doctors first." As medical students, we were repeatedly told about the contributions our institution made to modern biological psychiatry, and how it was a bastion of biologically-minded psychiatrists even during the era when psychoanalysts dominated psychiatry.

It was not surprising, then, to see psychiatry attendings walking around the hospital and lecture halls wearing their long white coats. Even the lone psychologist that taught some medical student lectures wore a white coat when he was in the hospital.

However, something always felt amiss with this biomedical aura. The psychiatry attendings were very quick – too quick – to defend the medical-ness of their specialty. I was told on multiple occasions that the arbitrary diagnostic criteria used in the DSM-IV are no different than the cutoffs used to define blood pressure in hypertension or glucose levels in diabetes. However, despite the prominent role the school's psychiatry department made in establishing biological psychiatry, physicians in other specialties there did not seem to respect the psychiatrists very much. The psychiatry interns took care of fewer patients on their Internal Medicine rotations than the medical interns, yet the psychiatry program director always insisted that the psychiatry interns performed just as well as the medicine ones.

As a third year medical student, I did my psychiatry rotation in a publicly-funded mental hospital, wearing my white coat just like the residents and attendings. There certainly were cases in which something clearly biochemical was going on in the brain of my patients, such as when a young man came into the ER hearing voices and feeling very paranoid after using a large amount of cocaine. I got to see antipsychotic medications help some patients with schizophrenia, but only so much, and with obvious side effects. There was clearly a vast gulf in understanding between the psychiatrists and patients, with the psychiatric residents spending minimal amounts of time with their patients and going home by 3pm each day. I was not sure how much wearing a white coat contributed to this distance or if it was mostly due to the culture of the place, but it certainly did not help foster empathy.

There were many other cases that left me feeling uneasy. As a fourth year medical student on the consult service, I accompanied a psychiatry resident when he evaluated a patient for suicidal thoughts. Afterwards, he told the primary team, "Don't worry, he's just a boy borderline." The attitude seemed to be that this patient would not actually harm himself because he was just "being manipulative," or that personality disorders somehow were not real, perhaps because there was nothing "biological" that could be done.

I did have a great experience working with the child psychiatrists at my medical school, who because of their specialty necessarily had to take a more holistic view of things. But even so, they tended to focus on the children as individual entities, without deep thought given to how interactions with parents influenced the children's behaviors.

When I asked the program director about learning psychotherapy as a resident there, I was told by that they don't really teach psychotherapy, because that is not going to be part of the job of a psychiatrist going forward. I would learn enough to know what kind of psychotherapy to refer a patient for, if it were necessary. Talking to the psychiatry residents though, some of them clearly wished that they had more psychotherapy training, so they could be more complete and competent clinicians.

I knew as a medical student that this approach to psychiatry was not for me. I would go elsewhere to continue my training.