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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?

After my [recent] post about “The Patient Who Didn’t Like The Doc Online,” I’m a bit skeptical about online reviews. Still, I Googled the psychiatrist in the story, and the online reviews aren’t as uniformly positive as those given by the patients who spoke to Mr. Harris [for his article]. Some were scathing, and they complained about how little time [Dr. Levin] spends with them. In all fairness, others were glowing.

The article makes psychiatrists sound like money-hungry, unfeeling, uncaring sociopaths. Either they’re charging $600 a session (Oh, can I have that job?) or the financial aspect is so important that they’re completely compromising their values for the sake of a buck. This doctor believes that patients get the best care when they receive psychotherapy, and the rendition Mr. Harris gives is that it’s understandable that [Dr. Levin] has compromised his values to maintain a certain income. I don’t buy it, and I don’t think it portrays psychiatrists accurately or favorably.

If the doctor felt that it was the high ground to give treatment to 40 patients a day who otherwise couldn’t get care, then this portrayal wouldn’t be so bad. And that may be the case — I don’t know Dr. Levin and I don’t know Mr. Harris, but I do know that an occasional reporter has been known to slant a story. I found it odd that there were no other options here aside from four patients an hour, 10 hours a day, not to mention the 20 emergency phone calls a day that he manages in the midst of all the chaos. Why hasn’t this doctor left the insurance networks and gone to a fee-for-service model with a low-volume practice if psychotherapy is what he enjoys and what he feels is best? Or why doesn’t he devote an hour or two a day to psychotherapy? (Yes, I know there are psychiatrists out there who have very-high volume practices.)

Okay, I shouldn’t rag on the poor doctor — I only know him through a newspaper portrayal. But I don’t think this article showed psychiatry at its finest hour.

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

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