Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Adventures in the Veterans' Hospital Mental Health Clinic - Part III

Not everyone, apparently

This post continues on from my post of 4/14/15 about the practice of psychiatry in the outpatient mental health clinic at the Veterans' Affairs Hospital in Memphis. I retired from my part-time position a few months ago. While the bureaucracy and some of their requirements on physicians were annoying, they were also amusing, if not entertaining, in a perverse sort of way.

Human foibles have always interested me, so I managed to put up with practicing there for several years. I was only working part time - just 30%. This limited time made the craziness tolerable for quite a while. I had been planning to stay there until the end of 2015, but I did not make it that long.

Why? There were two developments that made my continuing to work there problematic, and I found myself counting the weeks until I could escape. Then I received a warning letter for my having made comments in some of my patients' electronic medical records (EMR) about the negative effects of some of the VA policies on the well being of the veterans I was treating. 

I knew very well that one is not supposed to do that and I would probably hear about it sooner or later, but complaints at staff meetings went absolutely nowhere - even though many of the other VA psychiatrists agreed with me - and I felt I had to protect myself from being held responsible for negative outcomes over which I had absolutely no control.

The expected write-up, when it finally came, was insulting. It was obvious that the VA was far more concerned about the way I had documented serious problems adversely affecting patients than they were about the serious problems themselves. And they had the nerve to offer me psychological help if I needed it, as if my valid complaints about the mistreatment of our fighting men and women were a symptom of an anger management problem on my part!

In discussing the letter with me, one of my bosses mentioned in passing that if I was unhappy with the practice environment at the VA, I didn't have to work there. I knew she meant that it would be better for her and everyone else if I did not conspicuously challenge VA policy, even though I had kept my complaints in-house. (Going public while still working at the VA was an act of professional suicide). But after she said it, I thought to myself, "You know, she's right!  I don't have to work here." Soon thereafter I gave two months notice of my intent to retire from my VA practice.

Neither of the two problems most responsible for my leaving was actually the subject of my letter of reprimand. The first big issue was briefly mentioned at the end of Part II of this post - a psychiatrist there who seemed to me to have been using almost all the worst practicess of bad psychiatrists that I have been describing in this blog. I'll call this doctor Dr. X. Dr. X had a large caseload. Upon Dr. X leaving the VA after practicing there for several years, I started getting some of Dr. X's patients re-assigned to me.

Dr. X's notes in the electronic medical record (EMR) were next to worthless:  No documentation of diagnostic criteria for the diagnoses that were made. No descriptions of why certain medications were chosen - some of which were not indicated for the diagnoses on the chart. 

Diagnoses were often written as just "depression," which is a symptom and not a diagnosis at all. The notes never discussed psychosocial issues, or if the patient might need psychotherapy, and rarely mentioned any of the patients' personality issues, which were plentiful.

The notes also never mentioned which medication side effects the patients might have complained about. Dr. X would increase the dose or change medications without saying why. If the patients were on antipsychotic medications notorious for sometimes causing increases in a patients' blood sugar and/or cholesterol, no blood test monitoring for this was done.

Worse yet, Dr. X would start someone on a new antidepressant, and then not schedule a follow-up appointment for three months or more. 

Antidepressants, when they work, take 2-3 weeks to start kicking in, and up to six weeks to get the full effect. Often the dose must be increased if the first dose of drug does not work. Different patients may respond to one drug but not another, and to which antidepressant a patient may best respond is unpredictable. Furthermore, certain agents may have serious side effects in a given patient, necessitating a switch to a different one. 

Thus, several changes in medication must often be made for some patients. Each time a change is made, the clock for the long 2-6 week kick-in period starts running from the very start all over again.

Therefore, patients started on these drugs need to be followed up within 3-5 weeks at the longest. Dr. X's patients who did not respond to this doctor's initial prescriptions or who had problematic side effects, on the other hand, had to wait months for a follow-up appointment. At that rate, they would often experience no improvement in debilitating depressive symptoms - unnecessarily - for months and months.

Then there was another issue with an SSRI antidepressant named citalopram (brand name Celexa). The FDA suddenly came out with a warning about the use of higher doses - doses that had previously been recommended - because of some minor EKG (heart rhythm) changes that may occur in some patients, which sometimes but rarely cause serious problems.  

Of course, the VA immediately mandated that dosages above the new recommendations be reduced poste haste with no exceptions, even if the patient had been stable both medically and psychiatrically on that dose for quite some time!

When patients were on the higher dose because they had not responded to the lower dose, Dr. X then unceremoniously reduced the patient's dose to the previously ineffective one, and then said see-ya-later for three to four more months. The patients of course relapsed because the lower dose had never worked for them in the first place. There were other SSRI's to choose from that Dr. X might have considered switching to, since the relapses in these cases were completely predictable. 

Although I occasionally had seen one of this doctor's completely worthless "progress notes" before I inherited some of these patients, I did not of course know about Dr. X's typical practice pattern until after this doctor left and I started treating them. However, Dr. X had been there for years. Because Dr. X kept a very low profile, apparently the powers-that-be played a game of "see no evil."

My getting these patients created two major problems for me. For one, I was getting potential cases of malpractice dumped in my lap.

Second, I started getting a lot of these patients. To understand the problem this created for me, first some background: Before I had taken the job at the VA, I was told that I would have a full hour to see any patient who was "new." Being aware of managed care tricks, I specifically asked: new to me, or new to the clinic? (I insist on not just taking the word of a previous doc but doing my own independent evaluation, although I do take the opinion of the other doc into account). I was told I would get a full hour for any patient who was new to me.

As it turned out, an hour was not the usual allotted time for visits at the VA for those patients who had been seen previously by any of the staff psychiatrists. Any patient who had been seen by another doctor was instead scheduled for the usual 30 minute follow-up. When I insisted on an hour for any patient new to me, and made the people responsible for scheduling patients change appointments which did not have the correct duration, the powers-that-be begrudgingly accepted my demand. This worked fine for quite a few years.

I was officially slated to see two patients that were brand new to the clinic every week, which is fine for someone working 30% time. I could usually get such new patients in for a follow-up appointment in a reasonable period of time. However, when Dr. You-know-who left, I was suddenly seeing 4 or 5 patients who were new to me every single week. And essentially starting from scratch with each of them. The VA, unlike me, did not count Dr. X's  patients as being "new," so according to them, my caseload of new patients had not increased - when in fact, it had more than doubled!

Soon all of my follow-up appointment times started to fill up. I was no longer able to get these patients scheduled in for follow-up within an appropriate time period.

This was made even crazier because the VA does not penalize patients who do not show up for multiple appointments - even if they miss several in a row. Therefore, some of my appointment times for follow up patients were being wasted on patients who had missed three or four appointments, and were therefore not likely to show up.  Of course, if I double booked patients, and everyone did happen to showed up, there would be no way I could see everyone on the schedule.

I knew we were short staffed, but I was not going to enable the system by short-changing the patients whom I was already seeing, which was what seemed to be expected of me.

The issue of being short staffed relates to the second issue that caused me to abruptly curtail my expected period of employment with the VA. That will be the subject of part IV of this series of posts.

1 comment:

  1. The maddening thing about your experience is how perfectly it encapsulates the problem with any institutional culture. We repeatedly hear about problems with the VA, FBI, CIA, or NFL, and even the office I work in, and how to an outsider, rectifying those problems is cut and dry: speak out. But showing up your boss will have consequences, though in an ideal world, it shouldn't. People who want to climb the career ladder in those institutions will not do so by challenging the status quo, they'll do it by mastering it. Chalk it up to the curse and blessing of the nature of humanity as social primates.