Would allowing patients to read their mental health notes provide more benefits than risks?
In a recent article in JAMA my colleagues and I argue that it would. While transparent medical records are gaining favor in primary care settings throughout the country through the OpenNotes initiative, there has been reluctance to allow patients to see what their treaters say about their mental health issues. While this reluctance is understandable and deserves careful consideration, we suggest that several benefits could result from patients reading their mental health notes.
First of all, accuracy would be enhanced by allowing patients to cross-check what their clinicians say about their symptoms, medication doses, and so forth. Second, allowing patients to review assessments and treatment decisions privately might help to promote a richer dialogue between patient and clinician. Third, patients might learn that their clinician sees them more as a complete person, rather than as a collection of symptoms.
Many patients silently fear that their treater “will think I’m crazy/whining/lazy/boring”; seeing in print that the treater does not see them that way—and in fact recognizes and documents their strengths—can be an enormous relief and might therefore enhance the therapeutic alliance.
Clinicians have their own worries about transparent mental health notes that must be considered. Will patients feel objectified by the medical language commonly used in documentation? Will they break off treatment if they don’t like what they read? Will too much time be spent wrangling over details of what has been documented? Will vulnerable patients be psychologically harmed by reading their notes? Although our article briefly addresses these issues, only a trial of transparent mental health notes will provide the data needed to assess them.
Such a trial has just begun at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Culminating many months of careful planning by my colleagues in the ambulatory psychiatry clinic, the Social Work department, as well as the OpenNotes team, we began a pilot project of transparent notes in our psychiatry clinic on March 1. So far almost all clinicians have chosen to participate in the project, and have identified 10% of their caseloads to be included. It’s too early to gauge results yet, but we hope to more fully evaluate the effects of making mental health notes fully transparent to our patients.
Michael W. Kahn, MD is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Medical Faculty Physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC).
The Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C. has once again confronted us with the issues of guns and mental illness, but what we really should address is the inadequacy of mental health care in the United States. Since 2009 there have been 21 mass shootings and the perpetrators in over half of these were suffering from or suspected to have a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. (The other killers with no signs of mental illness were ideological zealots, disgruntled employees and disaffected loners.)
After each incident there is a great hue and cry, and calls for action but no substantive action is taken. Our reflexive approach has repeatedly failed to provide care in a timely fashion to individuals in need. As a country, we continue to ignore the growing public health need for greater access and a more proactive approach to mental health care. It is time that we say enough is enough and do something to prevent future tragedies.
When you strip away the hype and politics, the causal factors in these horrific incidents are clear and solvable. Yet we’ve lacked the social and political will to fashion and apply the solution.
The plain truth of the matter is that we do not provide adequate services to the 26% of the U.S. population with mental illness. The scope of and access to mental health services available to most people are limited and fragmented. Moreover, insurance coverage is all too often lacking and discriminatory. Consequently, we do not provide the level and quality of care of which physicians and health care providers are capable. It is the equivalent of knowing that a woman has breast cancer but not offering the indicated treatment options of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. The result is that many people go untreated or inadequately treated.
Connecticut’s Appellate Court recently ruled that hospitals and doctors can successfully sue their patients’ attorneys for filing a vexatious malpractice suit. The Court also ruled that the trial judge’s decision that the patient’s suit was vexatious will often create an estoppel against the attorney. The attorney will consequently be precluded from contesting that decision. The only issue will then be the amount of damages—double or treble—that the attorney and her firm will be obligated to pay the hospital or the doctor. See Charlotte Hungerford Hospital v. Creed — A.3d —-, 2013 WL 3378824 (Conn. App. 2013).
Whether this is going to be a trend in our medical malpractice law remains to be seen. In the meantime, I provide the details of that important decision.
Attorneys representing the family of a psychiatric patient, who committed suicide, filed a malpractice suit against a hospital and some of its doctors. They alleged that the defendants prematurely discharged the patient from the hospital’s emergency room while she was still experiencing a severe mental health crisis. Allegedly, this untreated crisis was the cause of the suicide that the patient committed four days later.
The suit was supported by an opinion letter from a registered nurse (!!). Under Connecticut law, as in many other states, the supporting opinion letter must come from “a similar health care provider.” The attorneys thus should have retained a psychiatrist, rather than a nurse, as an expert supporting the suit. Their failure to do so rendered the suit defective and the trial judge properly struck it out.
We have become a pill popping society. It makes absolutely no sense that twenty percent of our population regularly uses a psychotropic medicine and that the United States has more deaths each year from overdose with prescription drugs than from street drugs.
The causes of excessive medication use are numerous- the diagnostic system is too loose; some doctors are trigger happy in their prescribing habits; the drug companies have sold a misleading bill of goods that all life’s problems are mental disorders requiring a pill solution; and the insurance companies make the mistake of encouraging quick diagnosis on the first visit.
My purpose here is to advise individuals on how best to deal with the risks of overdiagnosis and overtreatment.
Elsewhere I have suggested the things government needs to do. A diagnosis, if accurate, can be the turning point to a much better life. A diagnosis, if inaccurate, can haunt you (perhaps for life) with unnecessary treatments and stigma.
Spend at least as much effort ensuring you have the right diagnosis as you would in buying a house. Become a fully informed consumer, ask lots of questions, and expect clear and convincing answers from any clinician who offers a diagnosis and recommends a treatment. If the diagnosis doesn’t seem to fit, get second or third opinions.
Never accept medication after receiving only a brief diagnostic evaluation, especially if it has been done by a primary care physician who may not be expert in psychiatry and may be too influenced by drug salesmen.
Don’t believe drug company advertisements that end with, ‘Ask your doctor.’ Drug companies profit if they can convince you that you have a psychiatric disorder and need medication. They portray the expectable problems of everyday life as mental illnesses due to a chemical imbalance because this sells pills and makes money- not to help you.
This is the saddest moment in my 45 year career of studying, practicing, and teaching psychiatry.
The Board of Trustees of the American Psychiatric Association has given its final approval to a deeply flawed DSM 5 containing many changes that seem clearly unsafe and scientifically unsound. My best advice to clinicians, to the press, and to the general public – be skeptical and don’t follow DSM 5 blindly down a road likely to lead to massive over-diagnosis and harmful over-medication.
Just ignore the ten changes that make no sense.
Brief background. DSM 5 got off to a bad start and was never able to establish sure footing. Its leaders initially articulated a premature and unrealizable goal- to produce a paradigm shift in psychiatry. Excessive ambition combined with disorganized execution led inevitably to many ill conceived and risky proposals.
These were vigorously opposed. More than fifty mental health professional associations petitioned for an outside review of DSM 5 to provide an independent judgment of its supporting evidence and to evaluate the balance between its risks and benefits. Professional journals, the press, and the public also weighed in- expressing widespread astonishment about decisions that sometimes seemed not only to lack scientific support but also to defy common sense.
DSM 5 has neither been able to self correct nor willing to heed the advice of outsiders. It has instead created a mostly closed shop- circling the wagons and deaf to the repeated and widespread warnings that it would lead to massive misdiagnosis. Fortunately, some of its most egregiously risky and unsupportable proposals were eventually dropped under great external pressure (most notably ‘psychosis risk’, mixed anxiety/depression, internet and sex addiction, rape as a mental disorder, ‘hebephilia’, cumbersome personality ratings, and sharply lowered thresholds for many existing disorders). But APA stubbornly refused to sponsor any independent review and has given final approval to the ten reckless and untested ideas that are summarized below.
The lack of specific features, which is the primary issue for GAD, will not be addressed in DSM-5. The hallmark of the condition will remain pathological worry, although it also characterizes other disorders. Likewise, the proposed behavioral diagnostic criteria lack specificity for GAD, and it is not clear how these will be assessed. The proposed changes will lower the diagnostic threshold for GAD in DSM-5… many currently subthreshold cases will qualify for this diagnosis. The likely inclusion of many such “false-positives” will result in an artificial increase in the prevalence of GAD and will have further negative consequences.