An Old Post on Breaking Bad News

I’m reposting a piece about a sense of humor and breaking bad news to patients I first wrote for my old blog, The Practical Psychosomaticist about a dozen years ago. I still believe it’s relevant today. The excerpt from Mark Twain is priceless. Because it was published before 1923 (See Mark Twain’s Sketches, published in 1906, on google books) it’s also in the public domain, according to the Mark Twain Project.

Blog: A Sense of Humor is a Wonderful Thing

Most of my colleagues in medicine and psychiatry have a great sense of humor and Psychosomaticists particularly so. I’ll admit I’m biased, but so what? Take issues of breaking bad news, for example. Doctors frequently have to give their patients bad news. Some of do it well and others not so well. As a psychiatric consultant, I’ve occasionally found myself in the awkward position of seeing a cancer patient who has a poor prognosis—and who apparently doesn’t know that because the oncologist has declined to inform her about it. This may come as a shock to some. We’re used to thinking of that sort of paternalism as being a relic of bygone days because we’re so much more enlightened about informed consent, patient centered care, consumer focus with full truth disclosure, the right of patients to know and participate in their care and all that. I can tell you that paternalism is not a relic of bygone days.

Anyway, Mark Twain has a great little story about this called “Breaking It Gently”. A character named Higgins, (much like some doctors I’ve known) is charged with breaking the bad news of old Judge Bagley’s death to his widow. She’s completely unaware that her husband broke his neck and died after falling down the court-house stairs.  After the judge’s body is loaded into Higgins’ wagon, Higgins is reminded to give Mrs. Bagley the sad news gently, to be “very guarded and discreet” and to do it “gradually and gently”. What follows is the exchange between Higgins and the now- widowed Mrs. Bagley after he shouts to her from his wagon[1]:

“Does the widder Bagley live here?”

“The widow Bagley? No, Sir!”

“I’ll bet she does. But have it your own way. Well, does Judge Bagley live here?”

“Yes, Judge Bagley lives here”.

“I’ll bet he don’t. But never mind—it ain’t for me to contradict. Is the Judge in?”

“No, not at present.”

“I jest expected as much. Because, you know—take hold o’suthin, mum, for I’m a-going to make a little communication, and I reckon maybe it’ll jar you some. There’s been an accident, mum. I’ve got the old Judge curled up out here in the wagon—and when you see him you’ll acknowledge, yourself, that an inquest is about the only thing that could be a comfort to him!”

That’s an example of the wrong way to break bad news, and something similar or worse still goes on in medicine even today. One of the better models is the SPIKES protocol[2]. Briefly, it goes like this:

Set up the interview, preferably so that both the physician and the patient are seated and allowing for time to connect with each other.

Perception assessment, meaning actively listening for what the patient already knows or thinks she knows.

Invite the patient to request more information about their illness and be ready to sensitively provide it.

Knowledge provided by the doctor in small, manageable chunks, who will avoid cold medical jargon.

Emotions should be acknowledged with empathic responses.

Summarize and set a strategy for future visits with the patient, emphasizing that the doctor will be there for the patient.

Gauging a sense of humor is one element among many of a thorough assessment by any psychiatrist. How does one teach that to interns, residents, and medical students? There’s no simple answer. It helps if there were good role models by a clinician-educator’s own teachers. One of mine was not even a physician.  In the early 1970s when I was an undergraduate at Huston Tillotson University (when it was still Huston-Tillotson College), the faculty would occasionally put on an outrageous little talent show for the students in the King Seabrook Chapel. The star, in everyone’s opinion, was Dr. Jenny Lind Porter, who taught English. The normally staid and dignified Dr. Porter did a drop-dead strip tease while reciting classical poetry and some of her own ingenious inventions. Yes, in the chapel. Yes, the niece of author O. Henry; the Poet Laureate of Texas appointed in 1964 by then Texas Governor John Connally; the only woman to receive the Distinguished Diploma of Honor from Pepperdine University in 1979; yes, the Dr. Porter in the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame—almost wearing a very little glittering gold something or other.

It helps to be able to laugh at yourself.

1.       Twain, M., et al., Mark Twain’s helpful hints for good living: a handbook for the damned human race. 2004, Berkeley: University of California Press. xiv, 207 p.

2.       Baile, W.F., et al., SPIKES-A six-step protocol for delivering bad news: application to the patient with cancer. Oncologist, 2000. 5(4): p. 302-11.

New Season for Highway Thru Hell

There was a countdown on Sunday for the new season for Highway Thru Hell. That’s the explanation for the featured image. The show has been on a while; this is season 11.

Season 11, for the first few episodes will deal with the catastrophic floods that devastated British Columbia in November of 2021. It took a huge toll on everybody, including the tow truck businesses. That’s one reason why I think, out of the plethora of reality shows that are faked on TV—Highway Thru Hell is not.

There are times when I wondered about the show’s authenticity, of course. One episode featured a potential new hire named “Jack Knife,” which brings to mind what the heavy tow trucks do, which is to drag huge jack-knifed semi-trucks out of ditches along the highways. The episode actually showed a segment of Jamie Davis, the owner of the major tow truck business on the show, in which he confirms that Jack Knife is the guy’s real name. It doesn’t look like he was hired.

There is a kind of irony about the kinds of jobs I’ve had and how similar or not they were to the Highway Thru Hell type of work.

You’d think that when I was working as a survey crewman back when I was a young, I would think it was similar to Highway Thru Hell. In fact, I worked for professional consulting engineers. I had a regular schedule with set hours. I had the right equipment for the right job. When work slowed down, meaning the company didn’t have a big contract for a highway relocation or whatnot, I and other guys would fill the time and to look busy, we would tie up redheads.

I’ve set up that joke before. We didn’t tie up red-headed women. You tied red ribbon as flagging around nails to use as measuring points for property or airport runway lines and the like. It makes them easier to see. If you were lucky and had some drafting skills, like me, in the winter months you’d work on drawing up survey plots and other plans for blueprints. I worked in pretty bad weather sometimes, in the winter. I never had to do anything that was dangerous. I got plenty of sleep.

But I never worked as hard as tow truck operators. When it’s slack time for them, some are laid off, which is never a good thing. But when they’re busy, they’re up all day and sometimes all night. The calls to haul trucks out of the ditch are unpredictable. And the conditions are always dangerous.

The irony is that it wasn’t until after I graduated medical school, got my medical license, and finished my residency in psychiatry that, as I look back on it now, that my work sort of resembled the chaos of workers on Highway Thru Hell. And being on call as a resident did sometimes result in my face nearly falling in my dinner because of sleep deprivation.

Like Highway Thru Hell, working as a psychiatric consultant was a lot like being like a fireman, which is similar to towing. I got called, often to emergencies, and had to work in conditions which were dangerous, mainly because of violent patients. Like towing, the work load was feast or famine. The job often called for creative solutions to apparently impossible challenges.

Much of the time, the Highway Thru Hell workers’ worst enemy was Mother Nature, just as it was in during the catastrophic floods of November 2021. For many psychiatrists and other physicians, it seems like the worst enemy was burnout, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is no quick fix in either case. We can work together and help each other.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Here’s another vintage post from around a decade ago after my former Psychiatry Dept chairperson, Dr. Robert G. Robinson and I published our book, Psychosomatic Medicine: An Introduction to Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry” in 2010.

Blog: Who Gets The Credit?

When I think about peak moments, I remember this guy back in junior high school who decided to try to break the Guinness Book of World Records for skipping rope. I don’t remember his name but the school principal and his teachers all agreed to let him do it during class hours. They marked out a little space for him in our home room. He was at it all day. And he was never alone because there was always a class in the room throughout the day. We didn’t get much work done because we couldn’t keep our eyes off him. It was mesmerizing. The longer he jumped, the more we hoped. We were very careful about how we encouraged him. We didn’t want to distract him and make him miss a jump. And so, we watched him with hope in our hearts. It was palpable.  As he neared the goal, we were all crowded around him, teachers and students cheering. He was exhausted and could barely swing the rope over his head and lift his knees. When he made the time mark, we lifted him high above our heads and you could have heard us yelling our fool heads off for miles. Time stood still. He was a hero and we were his adoring fans. It didn’t occur to us to be jealous. His achievement belonged to all of us.

Another peak moment occurred more recently, when my colleagues and I published a book this summer. It’s my first book. It’s a handbook about consultation-liaison psychiatry which my department chairman and I edited, and the link is available on this page. This time, the effort was collaborative with over 40 contributors. The work took over 2 years and often, being an editor felt like herding cats. But we worked on it together. Many of the contributors were trainees working with seasoned psychiatrists who had much weightier research and writing projects on their minds, I’m sure. Like any first book, it was a labor of love. The goal was to teach fundamental concepts and pass along a few pearls about psychosomatic medicine to medical student, residents, and fellows. The book grew slowly, chapter by chapter. And when it was finally complete, this time the achievement was ours and again it belonged to all of us.

I made a lot of long-distance friends on the book project and occasionally get encouragement to do something else we could work together on. I suppose one thing everyone could do is to propose some kind of delirium early detection and prevention project at their own hospitals and chronicle that in a blog to raise awareness about delirium—sort of like what I’ve been trying to do here. We could share peak moments like:

  1. Getting the Sharepoint intranet site up and going so that group members can talk to each other about in discussion groups about how to hammer out a proposal, which delirium rating scale to use, or which management guidelines to use—and avoid the email storms.
  2. Being invited to give a talk about delirium at a grand rounds conference or regional meeting.
  3. Talking with someone who is interested in funding your delirium project (always a big hit).

That way if one of us falters, we always know that someone else is in there pitching. Copyrighting ideas and tools are fine. Hey, everybody has a right to protect their creative property. I’m mainly talking about sharing the idea of a movement to teach health care professionals, and patients about delirium, to help us all understand what causes it, what it is and what it is not, and how to prevent it from stealing our loved ones and our resources.

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit”-Harry Truman, Kansas Legislature member John Solbach, Ronald Reagan, Charles E. Montague, Benjamin Jowett, a Jesuit Father, a wise man, Edward T. Cook, Edward Everett Hale, a Jesuit Priest named Father Strickland.

Blast from the Past Blog

I thought I’d re-post something from my previous blog, The Practical Psychosomaticist, which I cancelled several years ago. The title is “Face Time versus Facebook.” I sound really old in it although it appeared in 2011.

I’m a little more comfortable with the concept of social media nowadays and, despite how ignorant I was back then, I later got accounts in Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I got rid of them several years later, mainly because all I did was copy my blog posts on them.

The Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine (APM) to which there is a link in the old post below, later changed its name to the Academy of Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry (ACLP), which made good sense. I still have the email message exchange in 2016 with Don R. Lipsitt, who wrote the book “Foundations of Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry: The Bumpy Road to Specialization.” It’s an excellent historical account of the process.

Don liked a post I wrote, entitled “The Time Has Come for ‘Ergasiology’ to Replace ‘Psychosomatic Medicine?” It was a humorous piece which mentioned how many different names had been considered in the past for alternative names for Psychosomatic Medicine. I was actually plugging his book. I don’t think ergasiology was ever considered; I made that part up. But it’s a thing. It was Adolph Meyer’s idea to invent the term from a combination of Greek words for “working” and “doing,” in order to illustrate psychobiology. Don thought “…the Board made a big mistake…” naming our organization Psychosomatic Medicine. He much preferred the term “consultation-liaison psychiatry.” We didn’t use emoticons in our messages.

The Don R. Lipsitt Award for Achievement in Integrated and Collaborative Care was created in 2014 to recognize individuals who demonstrate “excellence and innovation in the integration of mental health with other medical care…”

I don’t think the ACLP uses Facebook anymore, but they do have a Twitter account.

I also included in the old post a link to the Neuroleptic Malignant Information Service (NMSIS). I used to call the NMSIS service early in my career as a consultation-liaison psychiatrist. I often was able to get sound advice from Dr. Stanley Caroff.

Blog:  Face Time versus Facebook

You know, I’m astounded by the electronic compensations we’ve made over the years for our increasingly busy schedules which often make it impossible to meet face to face.  Frankly, I’ve not kept up. I still think of twittering as something birds do. If you don’t get that little joke, you’re probably not getting mail from the AARP.

The requests for psychiatric consultations are mediated over the electronic medical record and text paging. Technically the medical team that has primary responsibility for a patient’s medical care contacts me with a question about the psychiatric management issues. But it’s not unusual for consultation requests to be mediated by another consultant’s remarks in their note. The primary team simply passes the consultant’s opinion along in a request. They may not even be interested in my opinion.

I sometimes get emails from people who are right across the hall from me. I find it difficult to share the humor in a text message emoticon. And I get more out of face-to-face encounters with real people in the room when a difficult case comes my way and I need to tap into group wisdom to help a patient. These often involve cases of delirium, an acute confusional episode brought on by medical problems that often goes unrecognized or is misidentified as one of the many primary psychiatric issues it typically mimics.

The modern practice of medicine challenges practitioners and patients alike to integrate electronic communication methods into our care systems. And these methods can facilitate education in both directions.  When professionals are separated geographically, whether by distances that span a single hospital complex or across continents, electronic communication can connect them.

But I can’t help thinking there are some messages we simply can’t convey with emoticons. By nature, humans communicate largely by nonverbal cues, especially in emotionally charged situations. And I can tell you, emotions get involved when physicians and nurses cue me that someone who has delirium is just another “psych patient” who needs to be transferred to a locked psychiatric unit (although such transfers are sometimes necessary for the patient’s safety).

So, when do we choose between Face Time and Facebook? Do we have to make that choice? Can we do both? When we as medical professionals are trying to resolve amongst ourselves what the next step should be in the assessment and treatment of a delirious patient who could die from an occult medical emergency, how should we communicate about that?

As a purely hypothetical example (though these types of cases do occur), say we suspect a patient has delirium which we think could be part of a rare and dangerous medical condition known as neuroleptic malignant syndrome (NMS). NMS is a complex neuropsychiatric disorder which can be marked by delirium, high fever, and severe muscular rigidity among other symptoms and signs. It can be caused very rarely by exposure to antipsychotic drugs such as Haloperidol or the newer atypical antipsychotics. The delirium can present with another uncommon psychiatric disorder called catatonia, and many experts consider NMS to be a drug-induced form of catatonia. Patients suffering from catatonia can display a variety of behaviors and physiologic abnormalities though they are often mute, immobile, and may display bizarre behaviors such as parroting what other people say to them, assuming very uncomfortable postures for extended periods of time (called waxy flexibility), and very rapid heart rate, sweating, and fever. The treatment of choice is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) which can be life-saving.

Since NMS is rare, many consulting psychiatrists are often not confident about their ability to diagnose the condition. There may not be any colleagues in their hospital to turn to for advice. One option is to check the internet for a website devoted to educating clinicians about NMS, the Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome Information Service at www.nmsis.org.  The site is run by dedicated physicians who are ready to help clinicians diagnose and treat NMS. Physicians can reach them by telephone or email and there are educational materials on the website as well. I’ve used this service a couple of times and found it helpful. The next two electronic methods I have no experience with at all, but I find them intriguing.

One might be a social network like Facebook. In fact, the Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine (APM) has a Facebook link on their website, www.apm.org. Psychosomaticists can communicate with each other about issues broached at our annual conferences, but probably not discuss cases. Truth to tell, the Facebook site doesn’t look like it’s had many visitors. There are 3 posts which look like they’ve been there for a few months:

Message 1: We have been thinking about using Facebook as a way to continue discussions at the APM conference beyond the lectures themselves. Would anyone be interested in having discussions with the presenters from the APM conference in a forum such as this?

Message 2: This sounds great!

Message 3: I think it’s a very good idea

 It’s not exactly scintillating.

Another service could be something called LinkedIn, which I gather is a social network designed for work-at-home professionals to stay connected with colleagues in the outside world. Maybe they should just get out more?

Email is probably the main way many professionals stay connected with each other across the country and around the world. The trouble is you have to wait for your colleague to check email. And there’s text messaging. I just have a little trouble purposely misspelling words to get enough of my message in the tiny text box. And I suppose one could tweet, whatever that is. You should probably just make sure your tweet is not the mating call for an ostrich. Those birds are heavy and can kick you into the middle of next week.

But there’s something about face time that demands the interpersonal communication skills, courtesy, and cooperation needed to solve problems that can’t be reduced to an emoticon.

Factitious Disorder and Civil Commitment

Similar to my previous post on the role of civil commitment and catatonia, I’d like to share my thoughts on what little is known about Factitious Disorder and civil commitment.

There is not much to say, in brief. In fact, many writers can find a lot to say about the other interesting clinical features of Factitious Disorder. That includes me. I wrote the chapter on factitious disorder and malingering in the book I and my former University of Iowa psychiatry department chairperson, Robert G. Robinson, co-edited (Amos, 2010).

The gist of the definition of this disorder is that patients lie about medical or psychiatric symptoms to health care providers to adopt the sick role presumably because they crave attention, especially from doctors. It is distinguished from malingering by not defining malingering as a disorder and identifying external incentives as the major reason to fake medical or psychiatric illness, e.g., escaping penalties or obligations such as incarceration or military service, or obtaining entitlements.

In the DSM-5 it was placed in the Somatic Symptom Disorder Category:

  • Factitious Disorder Imposed on Self
    • A. Falsification of physical or psychological signs or symptoms, or induction of injury or disease, assoc. w/identified deception
    • B. Presenting oneself to others as ill, impaired, injured
    • C. Deceptive behavior evident even in absence of obvious external rewards
    • D. Not better accounted for by another mental d/o like delusional d/o or other psychosis

It can be further specified into single or recurrent episodes. There is also another category, Factitious disorder imposed on another (by proxy in DSM-IV).

Regarding civil commitment, obtaining an order can sometimes be difficult when the standard in a jurisdiction is imminent danger to self, or when judges require a treatment plan for a disorder for which there is little evidence of consistently effective treatment— (Eastwood, S. and J.I. Bisson, Management of Factitious Disorders: A Systematic Review. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 2008. 77(4): p. 209-218.)

The legal climate is further complicated by patients with the disorder who have filed malpractice lawsuits against the doctors who failed to recognized their factitious behavior. Patients have been sued for false claims to insurance companies.

A recently published case report (which makes up the majority of papers published about the disorder) mentions the Eastwood and Bisson review (see above), which indicated that 60% of these patients either refused or failed to appear for psychiatric follow-up. Civil commitment is limited to those with imminent suicide risk, clear evidence of danger to others, or inability to provide for basic self-care needs (Sinha A, Smolik T. Striving to Die: Medical, Legal, and Ethical Dilemmas Behind Factitious Disorder. Cureus. 2021 Feb 9;13(2): e13243. doi: 10.7759/cureus.13243. PMID: 33585147; PMCID: PMC7872498.)

Patients with factitious disorder can self-induce illness in ways that result in severe disfigurement or death, often from unnecessary medical interventions. And they have successfully sued physicians who unwittingly caused iatrogenic harm for failing to recognize their disorder—despite denying the true nature of their feigned illnesses in the first place early on. The cost of their excessive health utilization has been estimated to run in the millions of dollars. Their subterfuge can also result in the physician ignoring genuine disease.

General management principles involved include:

  • Assess severity, potential for imminent life or limb threat
  • Thoroughly document evidence
  • Involve hospital administration/attorneys/ethicists early
  • Psychiatric consultation early
  • Treat depression, psychosis, addiction
  • Confrontational v. nonconfrontational approaches

One published case report described obtaining a commitment order based on the patient’s demonstrated dangerousness from self-induced illness (Johnson, 2000). Another case report described “house arrest” as the intervention (Elmore, 2005). Yet another report discussed an interesting non-coercive “Hospital Management” approach which used “paradoxical free access to the hospital with a designated permanent bed on a medical ward for 1 year—which was apparently successful (Schwarz, 1993). The list of successfully treated patients under court order is short and the likelihood of sustained recovery is probably low.

The civil commitment approach is confrontational and there are proponents for a nonconfrontational approach because it’s difficult to get a court order for involuntary psychiatric hospitalization and often, once a patient with Factitious Disorder is admitted to a locked psychiatric ward, the self-induced illness behavior often simply stops. And there are supporters for the development of a “therapeutic discharge” plan in which hospital administration and clinical staff collaborate to conduct a safe discharge:

  • Consider involving hospital administration and all health care personnel in a therapeutic discharge plan if it can be done safely
    • Taylor, J. B., S. R. Beach and N. Kontos (2017). “The therapeutic discharge: An approach to dealing with deceptive patients.” Gen Hosp Psychiatry 46: 74-78.
    • Kontos, N., J. B. Taylor and S. R. Beach (2018). “The therapeutic discharge II: An approach to documentation in the setting of feigned suicidal ideation.” Gen Hosp Psychiatry 51: 30-35.
    • Beach, S. R., et al. (2017). “Teaching Psychiatric Trainees to “Think Dirty”: Uncovering Hidden Motivations and Deception.” Psychosomatics 58(5): 474-482.

References

Amos, J. (2010). Managing factitious disorder and malingering. In E. b. Robinson, Psychosomatic Medicine: An Introduction to Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry (pp. 82-88). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Elmore, J. L. (2005). Munchausen Syndrome: An Endless Search for Self, Managed by House Arrest and Mandated Treatment. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 561-563.

Johnson, B. R. (2000). Suspected Munchausen’s Syndrome and Civil Commitment. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law, 74-76.

Schwarz, K. M., et al (1993). Hospital Management of a Patient With Intractable Factitious Disorder. Psychosomatics, 265.

Congratulations to Paul Thisayakorn, MD!

I got a wonderful holiday greeting from one of my favorite past residents, Paul Thisayakorn, MD. He’s running a top-notch Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry (CL-P) Service and a brand-new C-L Fellowship in Thailand. I could not be more excited for him and his family. His wife, Bow, runs the Palliative Care Service.

He and Bow answered our holiday greeting to them. In it I remarked about my brief episode of mild delirium immediately following my eye surgery for a detached retina and mentioned a nurse administering the CAM-ICU delirium screening test. One of the questions was “Will a stone float on water?” I answered it correctly, but joked in the greeting message that I said “Yes, but only if it really believes.”

His remark was priceless: “We actually did a CAM-ICU in the morning when I received this email from you. I told my fellow and residents about you and what you taught me how to be a practical psychosomaticist. They also learned about how stone floats on the water.”

Paul made an awesome contribution to the Academy of C-L Psychiatry knowledge base during the height of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Things were tough there for a long time. Paul tells me they are still practicing some elements of the Covid protocol. Thailand is gradually opening back up.

This is the second year for his C-L Psychiatry fellowship program at the Chulalongkorn Psychiatry Department. They graduated their first C-L fellow and there are now two other fellows in training.

Under Paul’s strong leadership, they’ve gathered a group of interested Thai psychiatrists and founded the Society of Thai Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry just this past October.

And he was given an assistant professor position at the university. Paul and his team are in the featured image at the top of this post. Paul’s the guy wearing glasses in the middle.

He’s not all work and no play, which is a wonderful thing. He jogs and meditates and he has the most beautiful family, two great kids growing fast and a wife who is both a devoted partner and the leader of the Palliative Care service.

As a teacher, I couldn’t ask for a better legacy. I still have the necktie with white elephants that he gave me as a gift. In Thai culture, the white elephant is a symbol of good fortune (among other things), which is what Paul was wishing for me. Of course, the feeling is mutual.

I wish Paul well in the coming new year. And to all those who read my blog, have a happy new year.

Thoughts on Suicide Risk Assessment

I know the term “suicide risk assessment” sounds very clinical. That’s because I did it for many years as a consultation-liaison psychiatrist in the general hospital.

The human part of it was using the suicide safety plan, which I got from the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health & Addiction (CARMHA). You can download it yourself and adapt it by writing in the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. That’s because the phone numbers on the form are specific to Canada.

Most often I interviewed patients in the intensive care units, where they were admitted after a suicide attempt. The interviews were very short if they refused to talk to me or were still delirious—often the case.

If they were awake and able to converse, the interviews were often pretty long. One way to connect with the patient was working on the safety plan together. I was often able to tell whether they were sincere or not by the level of detail they gave me about support persons they could get in touch with or things they could do to help them cope with whatever was troubling them.

A lack of detail in the plan, or refusal to work on some parts of it were areas of concern. If there were comments about friends, pets, or pastimes that spontaneously led to laughter (yes, that happened occasionally!), I was more confident that the patient was able to look toward the future and make specific plans for staying alive.

There is healthy debate about how useful specific suicide risk assessment scales are for predicting and preventing suicide. They are an essential part of the computerized medical records now, whatever anyone thinks of their reliability at predicting imminent suicide. I never used no-suicide contracts because well before the time I entered professional practice, most experts agreed that they don’t prevent suicide.

What was more useful for me as a clinician was to sit down at the patient’s bedside and, after getting the details about what the patient actually did in the suicide attempt and the events connected with it (along with a comprehensive and thorough history), I would get the safety plan from my clipboard, hold it up so they could see it and say, “Now let’s work on this; it’s your safety plan.”

I can’t tell you how often working on those plans, frequently for more than half an hour, led to laughter as well as tears from the patient. When it worked, meaning the relationship between us deepened, I sometimes did not find it necessary to admit the person to the psychiatric ward. While this occasionally alarmed the ICU nurses, things usually turned out fine later.

A Retired Consultation-Liaison Psychiatrist’s Perspective on Eating Disorders

This is just my presentation on eating disorders vs disordered eating for a Gastrointestinal Disease Department grand rounds several years ago. What’s also helpful is an eating disorder section on the National Neuroscience Curriculum Initiative (NNCI) web site. I left comments and questions there, which the presenter answered.

In addition, the Academy of Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry (ACLP) has an excellent web site and here is the link to a couple of fascinating presentations from the ACLP 2017 annual meeting on management of severe eating disorders, including a report on successful treatment using collaboration between internal medicine and psychiatry.

If you can’t find it from the link, navigate to the Live Learning Center from the ACLP home page and type “eating disorder” in the search field. One of the presentations is entitled “Has She Reached the End of Her Illness Process.” The other is entitled “Creating Inter-Institutional Collaborative Care Models.”

This is a very complex area of medicine and psychiatry. There are no simple solutions, although many experts across the country are hard at work on finding practical solutions.

The caveat is that the information here is not updated for recent changes in the literature.

What Would Make Psychiatry More Fun?

I just read Dr. George Dawson’s post “Happy Labor Day” published August 31, 2022. As usual, he’s right on the mark about what makes it very difficult to enjoy psychiatric practice.

And then, I looked on the web for anything on Roger Kathol, MD, FACLP. There’s a YouTube video of my old teacher on the Academy of Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry (ACLP) YouTube site. I gave up my membership a few years ago in anticipation of my retirement.

I think one of my best memories about my psychiatric training was the rotation through the Medical-Psychiatry Unit (MPU). I remember at one time he wanted to call it the Complexity Intervention Unit (CIU)—which I resisted but which made perfect sense. Medical, behavioral, social, and other factors all played roles in the patient presentations we commonly encountered with out patients on that unit where we all worked so hard.

Dr. Kathol made work fun. In fact, he used to read selections from a book about Galen, the Greek physician, writer and philosopher while rounding on the MPU. One day, after I had been up all night on call on the unit, I realized I was supposed to give a short presentation on the evaluation of sodium abnormalities.

I think Roger let me off the hook when he saw me nodding off during a reading from the Galen tome.

Dr. Dawson is right about the need to bring back interest, fun and a sense of humor as well as a sense of being a part of what Roger calls the “House of Medicine.” He outlines what that means in the video.

What made medicine interesting to me and other trainees who had the privilege of working with Roger was his background of training in both internal medicine and psychiatry. He also had a great deal of energy, dedication, and knew how to have fun. He is a great teacher and the House of Medicine needs to remember how valuable an asset a great teacher is.

Short History of C-L Psychiatry Fellowship at Iowa

I read a short article, “The case for pursuing a consultation-liaison psychiatry fellowship” by Samuel P. Greenstein, MD in Current Psychiatry (Vol. 1, No. 5, May 2022). After 3 years as an attending, he found his calling as a C-L psychiatrist, especially after getting teaching awards from trainees. But when he applied to academic institutions for position as a C-L academic psychiatrist, people kept advising him to complete a fellowship training program in the subspecialty first. He gave it careful thought and did so, even he called it going “backwards” in his career.

On the other hand, he believes C-L fellowships will help meet the challenges of addressing rising health care costs and improving access to what most people see as the critically important goal of providing access to integrated mental health and medical care.

I’ve been retired from consultation-liaison psychiatry for two years now. I get an enormous sense of achievement on the rare occasions when I hear from former trainees who say things like “For me you were…one of the most outstanding attendings I had at my time at Iowa.” And “I can at least take comfort that University of Iowa is still at the forefront of psychiatry.”

Several years ago, one of the residents suggested starting a Psychosomatic Medicine Interest Group (PMIG). This was before the name of the subspecialty was formally changed to Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry in 2018. I know many of us were very pleased about that.

I sent a short survey (see the gallery below the slide show) to the faculty and residents in an effort gauge support for the idea and readiness to participate. I used a paper published at the time to guide the effort, (Puri NV, Azzam P, Gopalan P. Introducing a psychosomatic medicine interest group for psychiatry residents. Psychosomatics. 2015 May-Jun;56(3):268-73. doi: 10.1016/j.psym.2013.08.010. Epub 2013 Dec 18. PMID: 25886971.).

You’ll notice on slide 4 one faculty member’s comment, “I think it doesn’t matter whether faculty are certified in PM.” As Dr. Greenstein discovered, it probably does matter, at least if you want to be board certified.

I was initially certified by the American Board of Psychiatry & Neurology (ABPN), but I objected to the whole Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program, as did many other psychiatrists. I eventually declined to continue participating in the MOC process. However, I notice that the Delirium Clinical Module that I and a resident put together is still accessible on the ABPN website.

Although response numbers were low, there was clearly an interest in starting the interest group. There was also an incentive to reapply to the ACGME for approval of a Psychosomatic Medicine (Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry now) fellowship.

My attempt years earlier had been frustrating. While it was approved, I couldn’t attract any fellows, forcing me to withdraw it without prejudice (meaning another application for approval could be attempted). Fortunately, that situation changed later. The Psychiatry Department at The University of Iowa now has an early career C-L psychiatrist who graduated from the reinstated C-L fellowship.

As the saying goes, “What goes around comes around.” Although the origin of that saying might have originated in the 1970s, at least one person thought his grandmother had her own version in the 1950s: “You get what you give.”

%d bloggers like this: