Saturday, July 14, 2012

Those Lying Psychiatrists

In the comment section of some of our blog posts, there have been comments about psychiatrists who lie.  While I haven't kept a tally of these remarks,  I think the most common assertion is that psychiatrists lie by telling patients they have to remain on medication for the rest of their lives.

My understanding of the term verb "to lie" is that it requires the person who utters a communication to know that it is not true, and it often is accompanied by a deceptive motive.  So, for example, if a patient has a UTI that can be treated with a cheap antibiotic taken for three days and the doctor knows this, but he is getting a kickback from the pharmaceutical agency and he's having trouble filling his schedule, so he prescribes the expensive antibiotic and tells the patient "You must remain on this for life, and you should come in for weekly visits or you will most certainly die," then this is a lie.

In medicine, we know very little for sure.  Every now and then we do know something absolute, like that if you do nothing about a specific condition, you will die.  What doesn't get said is that even if you do something about it, you may still die, and that no matter what, eventually you will die.

Doctors seldom know that you must do anything, when they say you must, or you should, or you need to, they are making a suggestion or recommendation based on the evidence that is available.  It's rare that evidence is complete.  You need to remain on this psychiatric medication for life is not any different in my book then You need to remain on a statin for life, or a blood pressure medication, or aspirin.  Maybe you have risk factors for coronary artery disease but it's possible you could live out your life without a statin without having cardiovascular disease, in which case you didn't "need" the statin.  Was your primary care doctor lying?  Of course, in the meantime, the statin could give you muscle problems, cause diabetes, or increase your risk of death by other means.  Oh, and while we're here, you "need a pap smear every year."  Oh, except now it's every 2 or 3 years, and not after 65.  Does every woman over 40 "need a mammogram?" Maybe it's 50?  Depends which agency you ask.  And don't start me on calcium, vitamin D supplements, yearly PSA measurements,  hormone replacement therapy, biphosphonates and all the other things we're told we "need" until it turns out they kill us. (Please note, there is nothing that currently indicates that vitamin D kills you and calcium only gives you increased risk for kidney stones, it doesn't kill you, and biphosphonates don't kill you unless perhaps they give you esophageal cancer).

When a patient is told they "need" a psychiatric medication for life, it's because the doctor believes the risk is high that the psychiatric disorder will recur without it.  Sometimes, it seems like a fair bet or that the risks are too high to chance NOT staying on a medicine.  Seven episodes of disabling major depression that caused the patient to lose their jobs, spouse, and have 4 hospitalizations and 3 serious suicide attempts?  Might not be a bad idea to stay on those meds, and you might not need such an extreme example to get there (I like to stay away from the lines).  

Sometimes, we're wrong -- after all, the recommendations are based on studies and statistics from groups of people with symptoms or illnesses, not on individuals.  The truth is that for most of these things, you don't know for sure until you try stopping them and see how you do without them.  But to call the doctor a Liar?  Isn't that going a bit far? Might be better to consult a fortune teller rather than a physician.