Have we written this one yet? I seem to think that Roy, our Consultation-Liason Boy, may have done this.
This is just my opinion, it's written with the non-shrink doc in mind, and it assumes access to psychiatric care:
So when should a patient be referred to a psychiatrist for care?
- When their distress due to psychiatric illness is such that they can't contain it and are driving the primary care doc nuts.
- Any patient with the new onset of a psychotic illness should initially be stabilized by a psychiatrist (this is just my opinion) if they are willing to go. Psychotic illness: any illness accompanied by hallucinations and/or delusions. Psychosis is frequently seen in Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder, but can also be seen with depression, delirium, and a host of other non-psychiatric illnesses. If the patient's hallucinations are caused by a brain tumor and they resolve with removal of the brain tumor, then the psychiatrist may not be necessary. Maybe Roy can write us a "causes of psychosis" post.
- For depression: my conservative rule would be to refer after the patient fails one antidepressant medication given at a therapeutic dose for long enough. What's a therapeutic dose: I go as high as a) the patient will tolerate or b) to the highest recommended dose (which ever comes first). If a patient can't tolerate more than 50mg of zoloft, well, this isn't a full trial. Switch to another med and try to get the patient up to a full dose. Wait AT LEAST four weeks (the mantra is 3 to 6 weeks) on a good dose. It's not uncommon to get a patient who has been on small doses of many anti-depressants, none for very long. And primary care docs aren't the best at augmentation strategies.
- Any patient with Bipolar Disorder needs a psychiatrist to stabilize them, and a psychiatrist available for management of episodes. If someone has been stable on Lithium for the past 8 years, they don't need a psychiatrist to prescribe it.
- When prescribing that first antidepressant, ask every patient with depression if they've had a manic episode: "Have ever had a time when your mood was too good, when you had excessive energy and needed less sleep, when you talked faster than usual, your thoughts raced, you were more impulsive than usual with regard to spending or sex?" Anyone who doesn't look at you like you're nuts for asking this needs to be questioned in more detail about manic episodes. If the patient has a history of even one manic episode, you're dealing with Bipolar Depression and prescribing antidepressants could be very risky-- not a bad time to refer.
- Don't prescribe Xanax for a chronic anxiety disorder. It's hard to treat patients who get dependent on xanax and it's hard to refer them if they end up on high doses.
- Any patient with a recent serious suicide attempt or recent psychiatric hospitalizations should be stabilized by a psychiatrist.
- Any patient with any psychiatric disorder that is compromising their ability to function, who does not improve after two to three months of treatment, should be referred for psychiatric care-- so OCD or Panic Disorder that is not getting better quickly.
- If a psychiatric disorder puts anyone's life at risk, it's probably more than a primary care doc wants to or should deal with.
- Any patient who is being treated by a primary care doc for a psychiatric illness should be asked if they want to see a psychotherapist (a shrink or a psychologist or a social worker or a nurse therapist). The patient may say that the pills have cured their depression and they don't need to talk. In the absence of information, this should be respected. But the gentle offer of a psychotherapy referral should be made early.