Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Latest Posts

Talk Is Cheap, Unless It’s Talk Therapy

Gardiner Harris had a [recent] article in the New York Times called “Talk Doesn’t Pay So Psychiatrists Turn to Drug Therapy.” The article is a twist on an old Shrink Rap topic, “Why your Shrink Doesn’t Take Your Insurance.” Only in this article the shrink does take your insurance, he just doesn’t talk to you.

With his life and second marriage falling apart, a man said he needed help. But the psychiatrist, Dr. Donald Levin, stopped him and said: “Hold it. I’m not your therapist. I could adjust your medications, but I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Dr. Levin sees 40 patients a day. And he’ss 68 years old. This guy is amazing. There’s no way I could see 40 patients a day for even one day. He’s worried about his retirement, but I wouldn’t make it to retirement at that pace. (Should we make a bet on whether Dr. Levin has a blog?)

The article has a whimsical, oh-but-for-the-good-old-days tone. In-and-out psychiatry based on prescribing medications for psychiatric disorders is bad, but the article doesn’t say why. In the vignettes, the patients get better and they like the psychiatrist. Maybe medications work and psychotherapy was overemphasized in the days of old? The patients don’t complain of being short-changed, and if Dr. Levin can get 40 patients a day better for — your guess is as good as mine, but let’s say — $60 a pop, and they only have to come every one to three months, and there’s a shortage of psychiatrists, then what’s the problem? Why in the world would anyone pay to have regular psychotherapy sessions? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

Teens Who Smoke Pot: At Risk For Mental Illness Later?

Teenagers and young adults who use marijuana may be messing with their heads in ways they don’t intend.

Evidence is mounting that regular marijuana use increases the chance that a teenager will develop psychosis, a pattern of unusual thoughts or perceptions, such as believing the television is transmitting secret messages. It also increases the risk of developing schizophrenia, a disabling brain disorder that not only causes psychosis, but also problems concentrating and loss of emotional expression.

In one recent study that followed nearly 2,000 teenagers as they became young adults, young people who smoked marijuana at least five times were twice as likely to have developed psychosis over the next 10 years as those who didn’t smoke pot.

Another new paper concluded that early marijuana use could actually hasten the onset of psychosis by three years. Those most at risk are youths who already have a mother, father, or sibling with schizophrenia or some other psychotic disorder.

Young people with a parent or sibling affected by psychosis have a roughly one in 10 chance of developing the condition themselves — even if they never smoke pot. Regular marijuana use, however, doubles their risk — to a one in five chance of becoming psychotic.

In comparison, youths in families unaffected by psychosis have a seven in 1,000 chance of developing it. If they smoke pot regularly, the risk doubles to 14 in 1,000. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Can Psychotherapy And Exercise Help?

[Recently] in The New York Times, David Tuller [wrote] about a study published in The Lancet that shows that psychotherapy is an effective treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome. In his article ”Psychotherapy Eases Chronic Fatigue, Study Shows,” Tuller writes:

The new study, conducted at clinics in Britain and financed by that country’s government, is expected to lend ammunition to those who think the disease is primarily psychological or related to stress.

The authors note that the goal of cognitive behavioral therapy, the type of psychotherapy tested in the study, is to change the psychological factors “assumed to be responsible for perpetuation of the participant’s symptoms and disability.”

In the long-awaited study, patients who were randomly assigned to receive cognitive behavioral therapy or exercise therapy, in combination with specialized medical care, reported reduced fatigue levels and greater improvement in physical functioning than those receiving the medical care alone — or getting the medical care along with training in how to recognize the onset of fatigue and to adjust their activities accordingly.

Interesting. Generally I like to stay away from the “it’s all in your head” debates. I’ll let the commenters do the talking here.

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

Not Enough Psychiatric Beds

I read today that Eastern Ontario has started a bed registry to keep track of where open psychiatric beds are available. This is something I’ve long advocated. The United States now has less than 10 percent of the beds it used to have 50 years ago. Granted, treatment has improved and community resources are enhanced. But there are still areas that often do not have a sufficient number of hospital beds for folks needing acute inpatient psychiatric care.

The Ontario story described in the Ottawa Citizen states that six of the area hospitals have been connected to a computerized “bed board” that provides real-time information on who has an appropriate bed available. This saves time in the ER and gets patients to needed treatment more quickly. Otherwise calls need to be made to each individual hospital, which is very time-consuming.

And it’s not uncommon for all the beds to be full. Last July there was an EMTALA complaint against a hospital in Maryland because a patient sat in the ER all weekend, and this hospital said they had no beds to admit the patient to. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) investigated the complaint and found that indeed the hospital was full that weekend. The ER’s record indicated that all the hospitals (except the state hospitals) were called that weekend and all indicated their beds were full. So DHMH visited every hospital (about 28, I think) thinking that surely one of them had an empty bed they were hiding. What they discovered was that every single psychiatric bed in the state was full.

Unfortunately, we have no way of determining how often this happens, but we know if happens often enough. A “bed board” like this would be very helpful in quickly finding beds when needed and keeping track of the extent of this problem. Having patients wait in ER for days is unsafe and is even discriminatory. How many people with stroke or uncontrolled diabetes sit in ER for days waiting to find a bed for treatment? I’d like to hear others’ thoughts on how this problem can be addressed.

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

Deep Brain Stimulation: Experts Warn About Aggressive Marketing

A paper published in the February issue of Health Affairs – discussed at length in an article in the New York Times – contains the sort of blunt, plain-spoken language you seldom read in academic journals. The authors, who include some of the most prominent neuroscientists and ethicists in the world, warn that manufacturers are misusing the FDA’s humanitarian device exemption to promote deep brain stimulation as a “treatment” for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

In fact, they make clear that deep brain stimulation is very much an experimental procedure. Research is still at an early stage, and the risks to patients are not well defined. When suffering is severe and no other treatment has provided relief, there is value in making available an intervention like deep brain stimulation. But misleading or biased information, no matter where it comes from, certainly undermines patients’ ability to calculate benefits and risks.

To enable deep brain stimulation, a surgeon must first implant electrodes in the brain and connect them to a pair of small electrical generators underneath the collarbone. Deep brain stimulation uses electricity to affect how brain signals are transmitted in particular areas of the brain. The image to the left, from the National Institute of Mental Health, shows how deep brain stimulation depends on the implantation of pulse generators below the collarbone and electrodes in the brain.

Specific concerns are raised by the article in Health Affairs (and in our own article on this topic last year in the Harvard Mental Health Letter). Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »