In Defense of Psychiatric Diagnoses and Treatments
The Boston Globe is out today with a story about conflicts of interest involving American Psychiatric Association guidelines for treating depression, mania, and schizophrenia – disorders for which the market in medications is said to be $25 billion annually. Conflicts abound, it seems, and the consequent implication is that industry influence has led to guidelines that “focus heavily on medications and give relatively little attention to nondrug treatments.”
The lead author of a forthcoming analysis, Lisa Cosgrove from the University of Massachusetts is quoted in the Globe as saying “…the lack of biological tests for mental disorders renders psychiatry especially vulnerable to industry influence." Maybe so, but it’s not just psychiatry. And this new study should not be taken to invalidate psychiatric diagnoses or to undermine the efficacy of psychiatric treatments.
The existence of disease is not predicated on having a biological test. It’s nice when we do have one, but there are many disorders throughout medicine, not just in psychiatry, for which there is no conclusively defining biological test. Think migraine. Think multiple sclerosis. Think chronic pain.
There is a distinguished tradition of clinical research, going back to the late 1950s, wherein disorders like depression, mania, and schizophrenia were studied for their genetic profiles, their clinically meaningful subtypes, their biological correlates, and their responses to treatments. This bottom-up approach yielded useful theories, which in turn led to better theories and to new treatments for depression, mania, and schizophrenia. Like any other branch of science, clinical science has a self-correcting function that distinguishes it from pseudo-science and propaganda. So, we welcome new theories even though most will not survive, and we welcome new diagnostic proposals and we welcome potential new treatments. All are subject to the test of independent confirmation, and nobody is surprised when many fall away.
Since around 1990 that tradition has been corrupted by Pharma and Pharma’s money. There is no shortage of examples regularly in the news. Academic key opinion leaders lost their ethical compass and, with or without a figleaf, devolved into spokespersons for industry. One is reminded of Julien Benda’s term la trahison des clercs. Instead of moving on from undistinguished and problematic new drugs, key opinion leaders work with the marketing departments of Pharma to promote and defend the brand. Remember the PsychNetters? Of course, psychiatry is not the only medical specialty corrupted in this way. Stents, anybody? Orthopedic devices, anybody?
Lost in the marketeering and propaganda since around 1990 is the discipline of clinical therapeutics. As one commentator put it, if there is no way to confirm biologically the existence of disease, then “…we cannot confirm with much confidence that this or that treatment treats mental disease.” It actually is possible to identify effective treatments for mental disease. We did it with lithium. We did it with the early antidepressant drugs. And we did it with the early antipsychotic drugs. There was room for improvement in all of these, but make no mistake – they were dramatic positive developments. Most of the work in the past 20 years, however, put marketing first and clinical therapeutics second. Humbug aside, the goal was not to improve the management of depression or mania or schizophrenia but to jump whatever bar the FDA was setting in order to get a product on the market. Indeed, the really hard clinical research issues were studiously avoided. Along the way, the clinical research enterprise became dominated by academic and for-profit contract research organizations in which, to put it gently, standards of recruitment of patients apparently suffered, so that response rates in placebo-treated patients skyrocketed. As a result, proving that a drug does work became harder, and the overall drug advantage over placebo in treating depression came into serious question. In effect, the corruption of clinical research standards has brought us to an epistemologic quagmire about the efficacy of today’s most popular antidepressant drugs.
As for the charge that psychiatrists and primary care physicians just throw drugs at mental health problems, that is nothing new. It is a reflection of the professional pragmatism that permeates medical practice. Think back to the 1950s when the new wonder drugs called antibiotics were handed out like Pez, mostly for people who did not really need them and who would not benefit from them. The working principle was misguided simplicity and pragmatism, which minimized and discounted the risks. Even today the over-use of antibiotics remains a public health concern. Just as in the 1950s patients with nonspecific upper respiratory symptoms were “given the benefit of the doubt” and were prescribed an antibiotic on the reasoning that it might help them while probably not hurting them, so today patients with nondescript depressive or anxiety symptoms are prescribed an SSRI drug on the same reasoning. The cost of this approach in wasted money, in unnecessary side effects, and in unproductive clinical management is non-trivial.
So, the issues are more nuanced than today’s Boston Globe story would suggest. For good and for ill, psychiatry is not so very different from the rest of medicine. Corruption and compromise respect no subspecialty boundaries. We can have reliable and valid knowledge of disease without a biological test. We can show efficacy of treatments for disorders that lack a biological test. But when simplistic pragmatism and cutting corners dominate in therapeutics and in clinical trials, then we are in trouble.
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