Overdiagnosis of Psychiatric Disorders Still Happens

I read an excellent article in Clinical Psychiatry News recently in the Hard Talk section. The title is “A prescription for de-diagnosing” by psychiatrists Nicholas Badre, MD and David Lehman, MD in the July 2022 issue (Vol 50, No. 7).

The bottom line is that too many psychiatric patients have too many psychiatric diagnoses. A lot of patients have conflicting diagnoses (both unipolar and bipolar affective disorder for example) and take many psychotropic medications which may be unnecessary and lead to side effects.

It takes time to get to know patients in order to ensure you’re not dropping diagnoses too quickly. Discussing them thoroughly in clinic or in the hospital is an excellent idea. And after getting to know patients as people, it makes sense to discuss reduction in polypharmacy, which can be quite a burden.

This reminds me of the Single Question in Delirium (SQiD), a test to diagnose delirium by simply asking a friend or family member of a patient whether their loved one seems to be more confused lately. It’s a pretty accurate test as it turns out.

This also reminds me of the difficulty in making an accurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I and a Chief Resident wrote an article for The Carlat Report in 2012 (TCPR, July / August 2012, Vol 10, Issue 8, “Is Bipolar Disorder Over-Diagnosed?”) which warned against overdiagnosis of bipolar disorder. Excerpts below:

Some argue that bipolar disorder is actually under-diagnosed. They have support from abundant literature showing that bipolar disorder tends to present more often with depression than mania or hypomania (Judd LL et al, Arch Gen Psychiatry 2002:59(6):530–537). As many as 10% of patients with unipolar depression ultimately are shown to have bipolar illness instead, according to some experts (Goodwin GM et al, Eur Neuropsychopharm 2008:18(7):535–549). (See this month’s Q&A with Claudia Baldassano for more on this.) In addition, a new emphasis on subthreshold mood symptoms and more rapid mood shifts has led some psychiatrists to promote the concept of a “bipolar spectrum disorder” (Youngstrom EA et al, Curr Psychiatry Rep 2010;12(6):479–489).

While it’s important to remain vigilant about a history of manic and hypomanic symptoms, we think the problem of over-diagnosis is probably greater. For instance, in a 2008 study, Zimmerman and colleagues performed a comprehensive diagnostic interview on 700 patients, nearly 21% of who self-reported a history of “bipolar disorder.” However, when using the gold-standard SCID (structured clinical interview), only 13% had the diagnosis; they also had more first-degree relatives with bipolar disorder than the others (Zimmerman M, Ruggero CJ et al, J Clin Psychiatry 2008:69(6):935–940). The authors hypothesized that over-diagnosis of bipolar disorder might be a consequence of efforts to improve recognition of it and avoid under-detection. In fact, the same authors studied 40 depressed patients previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder and found that, by the SCID, they had specific phobia, PTSD, drug abuse/dependence, or a personality disorder instead (Zimmerman M et al, Compr Psychiatry 2010;51(2):99–105).

Over-diagnosis can also occur when apparent mood episodes are defined as psychiatric when in fact, they have a different etiology altogether. Decreased need for sleep, disorganized or racing thoughts, increased activity and agitation, and delusional thinking, even when they occur together, can represent a sort of “final common pathway” for medical conditions and other syndromes. The manic phenotype can occur in patients with agitated delirium, brain tumors, corticosteroid treatment, and of course substance intoxication (Bunevicius A et al, CNS Spectr 2008;13(11):950–958; Brooks JO and Hoblyn JC, Am J Psychiatry 2005;162(11):2033–2038). These other phenotypes can be distinguished by recognition of key features such as the fluctuating nature of consciousness in delirium, neuroimaging findings, and positive urine drug screens.

Unfortunately, physicians may also be susceptible to diagnostic shortcuts. When faced with limited time for diagnostic interviews and the pressure to prescribe by patients and their families, well-meaning clinicians may give the diagnosis after a single brief interview. Not uncommonly, we find that it was diagnosed on the basis of mood fluctuation over minutes, temper tantrums, and fleeting insomnia. The rapidly expanding repertoire of medications approved for bipolar disorder, and their relative ease of use, may also contribute to over-diagnosis. Unfortunately, in some cases the treatment may be worse than the symptoms themselves (Iordache I and Low NC, J Psychiatry Neurosci 2010;35(3): E3–4).

I was accustomed to asking what I called the Single Question in Bipolar (SQiB). I frequently saw patients who said their psychiatrists had diagnosed them with bipolar disorder. I would ask them, “Can you tell me about your manic episodes?”

Often, they looked puzzled and replied, “What’s a manic episode?” I would describe the typical symptoms and they would deny ever having them.

The article by Drs. Badre and Lehman is a bit disappointing in that it doesn’t look as though we’ve improved our diagnostic acumen much in the last decade.

We need to try harder.

Author: James Amos

I'm a retired consult-liaison psychiatrist. I navigated the path in a phased retirement program through the hospital where I was employed. I was fully retired as of June 30, 2020. This blog chronicles my journey.

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