Saturday, November 29, 2008

Should Psychiatrists See Patients for Psychotherapy?

The trend is for psychiatrists to see patients for psychiatric evaluation, treatment with medications, and a medicalized version of psychiatric care, while parceling out psychotherapy to non-MD psychotherapists-- social workers, psychologists, licensed clinical counselors, nurse therapists, pastoral counselors (and anyone else who wants to listen...a bartender or two, perhaps the hair stylist).

Those readers who've been following Shrink Rap for a while know that I work in two types of outpatient settings: a community mental health center where I see people to treat their mental illnesses with medications, and a private psychotherapy practice where I use medications but I also provide psychotherapy to patients who want and need it. ClinkShrink sees patients in forensic settings (name your jail) and she sees a remarkably high volume of patients. She deals exclusively with medical issues-- patients may say or hear things that impact them positively, but the formal setting of therapy to talk, as a process over time, to resolve specific issues, to deal with past events, and to alter patterns of behavior, is not what she does. Roy has worked in many settings, but his current hat is as a Consultation-Liason psychiatrist in a large community hospital-- he mostly evaluates patients and makes treatment recommendations, but he doesn't see outpatients over long periods of time. He used to do that.

Psychiatrists (in the old days) used to see people for psychotherapy routinely, especially before medications were available. I think I was finished with medical school before I even knew that social workers saw clients for psychotherapy. I thought they met with families, worked for agencies, helped with disposition and obtaining benefits, and had a lot to do with foster children and protective services. I believed psychotherapy was the exclusive domain of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists. I simply didn't know.

I've talked here before about why I think, in a totally ideal world, that it's best for patients to see one person for psychotherapy and medications: one stop shopping is more convenient, psychiatric illnesses aren't 'explained' away without the offer of medications, the doc really gets to know the patient and learns to differentiate better what is, and what is not, a symptom of illness or medication side effects, and there isn't a set-up for patients who are prone to dividing their care-takers into good guys and bad guys.

The reality of the world is that psychiatrists are the most expensive mental health professionals, and in the shortest demand. They are more expensive to train, they often finish school heavily in debt, and there aren't enough to go around. And psychiatric residency programs, for the most part, don't emphasize psychotherapy training-- the resident has to pursue it. A psychiatry resident was recently telling me about a patient who wanted insight-oriented psychotherapy and the resident said, "We just don't have time in residency to do that." For those who know they want to pursue a career in research, spending a lot of time learning to do psychotherapy may not be a wise use of limited time. Some people might go as far to say that it's wrong to have psychiatrists doing psychotherapy, especially in shortage regions where there aren't enough shrinks to go around--- a lot more patients can be seen for quick med checks than for 4 times/week psychoanalysis (-- I'm not a psychoanalyst, by the way).

I believe that people should do what suits them, given the realistic constraints of their environment. I'm even okay with the psychiatrist beauty queen. With regard to psychiatrists doing psychotherapy: I like the work and there seems to be a demand for it. I also work in a clinic where the option does not exist to do this kind of work, but it does afford me the opportunity to see a different population of patients and to work as part of a team.

(Roy made me proof read this; my first draft was a disaster.)