Detecting Malingering

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Psychosomatic Medicine: A Supraspecialty

At the annual Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine (APM) meeting this year held on Marco Island, Florida, I heard Dr. Theodore Stern call Psychosomatic Medicine (PM) a “supraspecialty”. Usually it’s described as a subspecialty.  I couldn’t find the word in Webster’s although “supra” comes from the Latin for “above, beyond, earlier”. One of the definitions is “transcending”.  I tried to Google “supraspecialty” and came up empty. So I guess it’s a neologism. The context was a workshop on how to enhance resident and medical student education on Psychosomatic Medicine services. Dr.  Stern coined the term while talking about the scope of practice of PM. As he went through the long list, it gradually dawned on me why “supraspecialty” as a title probably fits our profession. It’s mainly because it makes us, as psychiatrists, accountable for aspects of general and specialty medical and surgical care above and beyond that of Psychiatry alone.

As a member of this supraspecialty, we wrestle with some of the most intriguing questions about the core competencies of clinical care, interpersonal and communication skills, professionalism, medical knowledge, systems-based practice, and practice-based learning and improvement. These core competencies are a set of commandments, as it were, that teachers and learners are supposed to quantitatively assess in the service of producing competent doctors.  While acknowledging the importance of qualitative assessment of the core competencies, Dr. Stern had the courage to criticize the assumption that quantitative assessment is even practicable. A qualitative assessment would probably be more practical.

For example, how would one assess a trainee’s ability to digest, critically evaluate, communicate about, and integrate into local practice systems the small but growing knowledge about psychopharmacologic prevention of delirium? I am a bit surprised at the general enthusiasm among PM practitioners about pretreating patients with antipsychotics in an effort to prevent postoperative delirium. One of the more recent examples of a very small set of studies is the randomized controlled study by Larsen et al which showed that using Olanzapine prevented delirium in elderly joint-replacement patients[1].  The caveat that everyone seems to ignore is that the patients who got Olanzapine endured longer and more severe episodes of delirium.  Dr. Sharon Inouye (who designed the Confusion Assessment Method or CAM for diagnosing delirium) has quoted George Washington Carver, “There is no shortcut to achievement”, cautioning against oversimplifying non-pharmacologic approaches to preventing delirium[2].  By extension, I’m suspicious of any recommendation that would reduce an intervention for preventing a syndrome as complex in etiology and pathophysiology as delirium to the administration of a single dose of a psychiatric drug either pre-op or post-op or both.  Given the complexity of this issue, is there a quantifiable assessment method for core competencies that suffices? What I’d really like to see is how a trainee thought through the complex issues involved.

One other issue that would influence our ability to assess core competencies is the recent appearance of evidence which seems to show that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) when given with beta-blockers may increase mortality in heart failure patients[3]. The bulk of the research evidence in the last couple of decades impels psychiatrists and cardiologists alike to have a low threshold for prescribing SSRIs to patients with heart disease in order to prevent depression. Again, in this context, is there a suitable quantifiable assessment for gauging whether or not a trainee has mastered the core competencies adequately? I would rather hear or read a trainee’s reflections on how to decide for oneself what the safest course of action would be under particular circumstances, and then how to convey that to our colleagues in Cardiology.

And is there a reliably quantifiable way to assess how a PM consultant (trainee or not) evaluates and recommends treatment for an ICU patient who develops catatonia postoperatively in the context of abrupt withdrawal of previously prescribed benzodiazepine, in the face of recent evidence that Lorazepam is an independent predictor of delirium in the ICU[4, 5]?

These situations tax the medical and psychiatric knowledge, treatment and communication skills and wisdom of master and learner alike. Is it possible to mark a check box on a rating scale to assess performance? And would that give us and our patients the ability to tell whether a doctor has the wherewithal to discern what kind of disease the patient has and what kind of patient has the disease, to do the thing right and to do the right thing?

 All of these examples make me wonder whether or not quantifiable assessment of every core competency in the supraspecialty of PM is realistic or even desirable.

1.            Larsen, K.A., et al., Administration of olanzapine to prevent postoperative delirium in elderly joint-replacement patients: a randomized, controlled trial. Psychosomatics, 2010. 51(5): p. 409-18.

2.            Inouye, S.K., et al., NO SHORTCUTS FOR DELIRIUM PREVENTION. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 2010. 58(5): p. 998-999.

3.            Veien, K.T., et al., High mortality among heart failure patients treated with antidepressants. Int J Cardiol, 2010.

4.            Brown, M. and S. Freeman, Clonazepam withdrawal-induced catatonia. Psychosomatics, 2009. 50(3): p. 289-92.

5.            Pandharipande, P., et al., Lorazepam is an independent risk factor for transitioning to delirium in intensive care unit patients. Anesthesiology, 2006. 104(1): p. 21-6.

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Not Everyone Can Be A Baptist Preacher

I remember HT Heroes

Getting membership solicitations in the mail from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) is a sure sign of aging, along with a growing tendency to reminisce. Reminiscence, especially about the seventies, may be a sign of encroaching senility.
Why would I reminisce about the seventies? Because I’m a baby boomer and because my ongoing efforts to educate my colleagues in surgery and internal medicine about Psychosomatic Medicine, (especially about how to anticipate and prevent delirium) makes me think about coming of age type experiences at Huston-Tillotson College (Huston Tillotson University since 2005) in Austin, Texas. Alas, I never took a degree there, choosing to transfer credit to Iowa State University toward my Bachelor’s, later earning my medical degree at The University of Iowa.
Alright, so I didn’t come of age at HT but I can see that a few of my most enduring habits of thought and my goals spring from those two years at this small, mostly African-American enrollment college on what used to be called Bluebonnet Hill. I learned about tenacity to principle and practice from a visiting professor in Sociology (from the University of Texas, I think) who paced back and forth across the Agard-Lovinggood auditorium stage in a lemon yellow leisure suit as he ranted about the importance of bringing about change. He was a scholar yet decried the pursuit of the mere trappings of scholarship, exhorting us to work directly for change where it was needed most. He didn’t assign term papers, but sent me and another freshman to the Austin Police Department. The goal evidently was to make them nervous by our requests for the uniform police report, which our professor suspected might reveal a tendency to arrest blacks more frequently than whites (and yes we called ourselves “black” then). He wasn’t satisfied with merely studying society’s institutions; he worked to change them for the better. Although I was probably just as nervous as the cops were, the lesson about the importance of applying principles of change directly to society eventually stuck. I remember it every time I encounter push-back from change-resistant hospital administrations.
I’m what they call a clinical track faculty member, which emphasizes my main role as a clinician-educator rather than a tenure track researcher. I chose that route not because I don’t value research. Ask anyone in my department about my enthusiasm for using evidence-based approaches in the practice of psychiatry. I have a passion for both science and humanistic approaches, which again I owe to HT, the former to Dr. James Means and the latter to Dr. Jenny Lind Porter. Dr. Means struggled to teach us mathematics, the language of science. He was a dyspeptic man, who once observed that he treated us better than we treated ourselves. Dr. Porter taught English Literature and writing. She also tried to teach me about Rosicrucian philosophy. I was too young and thick-headed. But it prepared the way for me to accept the importance of spirituality, when Marcia A. Murphy introduced me to her book, “Voices in the Rain: Meaning in Psychosis”, a harrowing account of her own struggle with schizophrenia and the meaning that her religious faith finally brought to it.
Passion was what Dr. Lamar Kirven (or Major Kirven because he was in the military) also modeled. He taught black history and he was excited about it. When he scrawled something on the blackboard, you couldn’t read it but you knew what he meant. And there was Dr. Hector Grant, chaplain and professor of religious studies, and champion of his native Jamaica then and now. He once said to me, “Not everyone can be a Baptist preacher”. My department chair’s echo is something about how I’ll never be a scientist. He’s right. I’m no longer the head of the Psychosomatic Medicine Division…but I am its heart.
I didn’t know it back in the seventies, but my teachers at HT would be my heroes. We need heroes like that in our medical schools, guiding the next generation of doctors. Hey, I’m doing the best I can, Dr. Porter.

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Letter from a Practical Psychosomaticist


Blogger’s Note: The word “Psychosomaticist” is clunky and I joked about it in my Cambridge University Press blog. Cut & paste into your browser URL: It’s possible you might see this blog under the title “‘Letter from a Pragmatic Idealist at that site in the near future. I thought “Pragmatic Idealist” was original until I googled it, alas, after I submitted the blog to Cambridge. Since I didn’t want anyone to tie me to what I found, I then considered “The Practical Idealist”, with the same result. The same with “The Practical Psychiatrist”. All of the terms are being used and the associations don’t fit me. I’m so far unaware of anyone or any group using the term “The Practical Psychosomaticist”.  Finally, what you’ll notice is that I’m listed as working for the Dean Medical Center in Madison, Wisconsin in the aforementioned blog. That was then and this is now. I’m actually back with The University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City, Iowa and glad of it, despite the obvious complaint in this blog.

I read with interest an article from The Hospitalist, August 2008 discussing the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) requirement for hospitals to submit information on Medicare claims regarding whether a list of specific diagnoses were present on admission (POA)[1]. The topic of the article was whether or not delirium would eventually make the list of diagnoses that CMS will pay hospitals as though that complication did not occur, i.e., not pay for the additional costs associated with managing these complications. At the time this article was published, CMS was seeking public comments on the degree to which the conditions would be reasonably preventable through application of evidence-based guidelines.

I have no idea whether delirium due to any general medical condition made the list or not. But I have a suggestion for a delirium subtype that probably should make the list, and that would be intoxication delirium associated with using beverage alcohol in an effort to treat presumed alcohol withdrawal. There is a disturbing tendency for physicians (primarily surgeons) at academic medical centers to try to manage alcohol withdrawal with beverage alcohol, despite the lack of medical literature evidence to support the practice [2, 3]. At times, in my opinion, the practice has led to intoxication delirium in certain patients who receive both benzodiazepines (a medication that has evidence-based support for treating alcohol withdrawal) combined with beer—(which generally does not).

I’ve co-authored a couple of articles for our institution’s pharmacy newsletter and several of my colleagues and pharmacists petitioned the pharmacy subcommittee to remove beverage alcohol from the formulary at our institution, where beer and whiskey have been used by some of our surgeons to manage withdrawal. Although our understanding was that beverage alcohol had been removed last year, it is evidently still available through some sort of palliative care exception. This exception has been misused, as evidenced by cans of Old Style Beer with straws in them on bedside tables of patients who are already stuporous from opioid and benzodiazepine. A surgical co-management team was developed, in my opinion, in part to address the issue by providing expert consultation from surgeons to surgeons about how to apply evidence-based practices to alcohol withdrawal treatment. This has also been a failure.

I think it’s ironic that some professionals feared being sanctioned by CMS for using Haloperidol to manage suffering and dangerous behavior by delirious people as reported by Stoddard in the winter 2009 article in the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM) Bulletin[4]. Apparently CMS in fact did have a problem with using PRN Haloperidol (not FDA approved of course, but commonly used for decades and recommended in American Psychiatric Association practice guidelines for management of delirium), calling it a chemical restraint while having no objection to PRN Lorazepam, which has been identified as an independent predictor of delirium in ICU patients[5]. Would the CMS approve of using beer to treat alcohol withdrawal, which can cause delirium?

As a clinician-educator and Psychosomatic Medicine “supraspecialist” (term coined by Dr. Theodore Stern, MD from Massachusetts General Hospital), I’ve long cherished the notion that we, as physicians, advance our profession and serve our patients best by trying to do the right thing as well as do the thing right. But I wonder if what some of my colleagues and trainees say may be true—that when educational efforts to improve the way we provide humanistic and preventive medical care for certain conditions don’t succeed, not paying physicians and hospitals for them will. I still hold out for a less cynical view of human nature. But if it will improve patient care, then add this letter to the CMS suggestion box, if there is one.

1. Hospitalist, D. (2008) Delirium Dilemma. The Hospitalist.
2. Sarff, M. and J.A. Gold, Alcohol withdrawal syndromes in the intensive care unit. Crit Care Med, 2010. 38(9 Suppl): p. S494-501.
3. Rosenbaum, M. and T. McCarty, Alcohol prescription by surgeons in the prevention and treatment of delirium tremens: historic and current practice. General Hospital Psychiatry. 24(4): p. 257-259.
4. Stoddard, J., D.O. (2009) Treating Delirium with Haloperidol: Our Experience with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine Bulletin.
5. Pandharipande, P., et al., Lorazepam is an independent risk factor for transitioning to delirium in intensive care unit patients. Anesthesiology, 2006. 104(1): p. 21-6.

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